Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:43 pm on 24th January 2008.

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Photo of Lord Luke Lord Luke Conservative 2:43 pm, 24th January 2008

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend on introducing this debate. When we consider the situation in Iraq, it seems to me to be a good idea to look at some of the historical trails that have formed the country and at its geographical position in the Middle East.

Mesopotamia, as it used to be called—the noble Lord, Lord Owen, mentioned that so effectively by quoting Kipling—lies broadly between the two great rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates, which run from sources in Turkey south-south-east into the Gulf. Control of the waters of these two rivers comes from abroad—from Turkey—which is a source of weakness. Together with the serious situation created by the reckless way in which Saddam Hussein destroyed the salt marshes, that makes it imperative to come to urgent regional agreement to apportion water fairly to all peoples dependent on them. Oil, which Iraq possesses in abundance, is vital to the nation's prosperity, but essential stability must depend on guaranteed supplies of water. What are the Government doing to ensure that discussions to achieve this take place as soon as possible?

Iraq is the site of the world's oldest known civilisation, the Sumerian. It was briefly part of the Persian, Hittite and Roman empires. It was an important adjunct to the Turkish Ottoman empire from 1533 to 1916. On the break-up of that empire, a Hashemite prince from Saudi was, in 1921, brought to rule by the British under a League of Nations mandate. This mandate was terminated in 1932 and the monarchy, with British support, lasted until 1958, when it was overthrown. A series of palace coups covered the next 20 years until 1979, when Saddam Hussein achieved power as an absolute ruler. As we all know, he exercised an intemperate and brutal regime, fighting Iran and many of his own countrymen. He invaded Kuwait in 1990, only to be thrown out in 1991 by Operation Desert Storm.

In March 2003, as we know, Iraq was invaded by a coalition primarily from the USA and Britain. From then until now, there has been a continuing and debilitating struggle to stabilise the country and to establish as firmly as possible a central Government in Baghdad composed of elements from the Sunni and Shia communities and the Kurds. Slowly, both in Baghdad and in the south, lessons in counterinsurgency have been learnt. The British have now withdrawn the bulk of their forces. The Americans have vastly increased their commitment—the surge. Both ploys appear to be working at the same time. Given continuing political and military support, a stable democracy—a semi-democracy, at least—may emerge. Some provinces are undoubtedly making better progress in this than others. In the past five years, the Americans have learnt well, albeit the hard way, how to deal with insurgents—so much so that they are now considered to be as good as, or better than, the British at this essential task.

How do we effectively combine military and civil powers at the same time? This is essential learning for all of us both in Iraq and Afghanistan. We and the Americans have perforce also had to learn how to fight wars in two conflicting theatres at the same time and how to balance competing demands for troops and materials. Hopefully, indeed certainly, we do learn and have learnt some lessons during this protracted period, but will we ever learn about the dangers of being caught by friendly fire? It seems not. We have learnt a lot about relatively simple things, such as how to keep reasonably healthy in desert war conditions, how to cope with searing heat, how to look after wounded soldiers in a quite exceptionally efficient manner and how to keep engines of tanks, other armoured vehicles and aircraft going when they are ingesting sand. We have had to consider how to train our troops in theatre and how to fight a vicious war at the same time as trying to build a nation.

The British Army in Iraq, although much smaller than in recent years, is as efficient a fighting force as it ever has been in its glorious history. But, of course, much long-term training has had to be postponed and rest periods minimised. Let us hope that it will not be too long before the Army will be able to leave the Middle East and Afghanistan altogether, revert to normal patterns of activity and cease to be so overstretched. In the mean time, secondments from the Territorial Army, as in many years in the past, have been found to be most worth while. The soldiers and officers are very keen and professional, and indistinguishable in combat from the regulars. They also bring extra skills, and their excellence is one of the most important lessons that we have learnt in the past few years.

We are all immensely proud of our Armed Forces, very grateful for the sacrifices that they have made and for their unquenchable spirits, which inspire us so much.