Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:08 pm on 24th January 2008.

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Photo of Lord King of Bridgwater Lord King of Bridgwater Conservative 1:08 pm, 24th January 2008

My Lords, I pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Fowler for introducing this important debate and doing it so well and so clearly and in what I hope will be seen as a very much bipartisan approach to this very difficult issue. I am struck by the efforts that have been made in the United States' approach to address issues of gravity for our country in a bipartisan manner. That is extremely important.

The noble Baroness, Lady Symons, is right to draw attention to some of the improvements that certainly seem to exist in Iraq at the moment. There seems to be a calmer atmosphere. One must guard against the fact that we tend to measure the situation in Iraq in terms of British casualties. The move to Basra airport has changed that situation but I understand that the number of attacks in Basra city—and of a particularly vicious and nasty kind—are continuing at the same level, but the targets are now different. Certainly, there is some optimism, expressed by the IMF and Ambassador Crocker. But the improvements have been achieved in some unusual ways. The Americans are now paying the militias $300 a month and providing them with arms, and we have currently sub-contracted significant areas of security in Iraq, in both Basra and Baghdad. There is a question about whether that will hold. There has been a welcome improvement in the Sunni expulsion of al-Qaeda from certain areas, suggesting, however, that once they get their own areas in order they will look to reassert their authority in some of the mixed areas. The threats of more ethnic cleansing are certainly worrying.

The worrying reports coming out of Basra suggest that we have settled for a balance of power between different militias. There have been significant illustrations in the form of attacks on women, with criticisms of their dress leading to physical assault, if not actual murder and execution. They suggest that we are presiding at a distance over a new Shia Taliban town being created. That gives some real concern to Kuwait and other neighbours about what may be developing there.

I certainly agree with the comment that the next six months are critical. Will the central government establish their authority? Will the Iraqi army really get a grip and be able to assert itself? Will it be able to sort out the police, get them working and the corrupt elements out? There are worrying reports about some of the problems in training the police. Can we see some real improvement and progress in reconstruction?

There are real concerns about the tensions and criticisms emerging between the Army and DfID. The feeling among many in the Army is that DfID has failed to take advantage of the work that the Army has had to do. A question to come out of this is whether we need some form of hardened DfID operational capability that can get into a less than ideal security situation and start reconstruction so that people on the ground can see the immediate benefit of a successful military operation.

I was struck by the speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Symons. I am not sure where she is on the inquiry; I think she said that she favoured one. She went on to cite various lessons that could be learnt straight away, and I offer a few ideas for lessons that could be learnt. With the greatest respect to the noble Baroness, Lady Ramsay, we cannot just depend on Bob Woodward's book and what Jay Garner said to the president. These are all bits of evidence which need bringing together. It is important that we address this at an early stage.

To analyse what happened in our relationship with the United States, I look back at my personal involvement in the first Gulf War and the relationship then. There were different personalities. There was no doubt that Douglas Hurd and Jim Baker had a particularly good relationship, and in no sense did the Pentagon dominate the State Department. Dick Cheney was a more junior member of the Administration—an effective Defense Secretary, my opposite number—but the State Department was not by-passed. Our co-operation was close, with one exception: the decision to stop after the turkey shoot and the Mutla Ridge; some may remember those terrible pictures of the Iraqi army trying to escape out of Kuwait. The meeting at which the decision to stop was taken was held in the White House without any British representation. Until that point, co-operation had been close throughout. We played a major part in ensuring that we had the right rules of engagement before it started. Looking at what happened in the United States at this time, we had—in Washington—a very inexperienced president with an exceptionally powerful vice-president who drew on his own experiences of the first Gulf War and his close relationship with another great Washington hand, Donald Rumsfeld. They undoubtedly very much sidelined Colin Powell and the State Department. We want to learn lessons on that.

We also want to learn lessons on intelligence. I do not think that it is unkind to say this as it is widely known: I chaired the Intelligence Security Committee, and we were critical of the lack of interest that the former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, took in intelligence. We regularly encouraged him in successive reports to chair the ministerial Committee on Intelligence Services on a regular basis. It did not happen. He must bitterly regret that now. A closer involvement in intelligence of that kind would have helped him as a very inexperienced Prime Minister—that is no criticism; it was the inevitable consequence of 18 years of Conservative government. He came in with no ministerial experience at all. However, closer involvement would have helped him to know which questions to ask and which challenges to put to the intelligence services. He had our reports—although I always worried whether he really read them. We had already said on more that one occasion—as the noble Baroness, Lady Ramsay, knows very well—what a hard target Iraq was for human intelligence. The intelligence services told us, as was in our reports, that we knew very little about what was going on in Iraq. That should have been a red light to warn a Prime Minister that he had better ask some pretty tough questions before taking some fundamental decisions of that kind.

On the military side, it is interesting to think that when we set out to expel Saddam Hussein and his invading Iraqi army from somebody else's country, 750,000 troops were involved. When we set out to undertake the much more difficult task of invading somebody else's country and destroying their Government and president, we tried to do so with less than half that amount. If one is talking about the effect of "shock and awe", and—that favourite phrase of the Americans—"having won the battle", you must hold the ground, which means substantial forces. But you must do something when you are holding the ground. I offer the analogy of the SAS and their stun grenades. If you try to break into premises and chuck in a stun grenade, you do not just then wait for an hour for the dust to settle and people to gather their wits. The point of the stun grenade is that, having made the attack, you get in quick and change things fast. We did not come into Iraq fast with real plans; that was the great mistake.

Briefly, on an inquiry, I am critical of our Parliament. Congress is much more effective at holding the Executive to account. Parliament should show its determination and resolve, and insist upon an inquiry. The Iraq Study Group was, in a sense, an American committee of privy counsellors: Jim Baker, Lee Hamilton, Larry Eagleburger and Bill Perry; a range of distinguished American people. We must set up something similar. The clinching argument for that is there will never otherwise be a right time, but we may find ourselves in this situation again. We cannot be sure. I would not like to take responsibility for the deaths of our Armed Forces facing a new situation, if we made some of the same mistakes we have made this time but had not got around to studying them, learning the lessons, and ensuring that we never made those mistakes again.