"With permission, Mr Speaker, following my visit to Baghdad and Basra yesterday, I should like to make a Statement about the future of British troops in Iraq—the timetables, our legal agreements and our force numbers.
Let me begin by asking the whole House to join me in paying tribute to the heroism of all our Armed Forces for their service and sacrifice in Iraq, and of course in Afghanistan, and in peacekeeping missions around the globe. Let me pay particular tribute to those who have given their lives in the service of their country—both military and civilian personnel. We salute their courage and will honour their achievements.
Today we remember in particular Lieutenant Aaron Lewis, 29 Commando Regiment Royal Artillery, killed in Afghanistan on Monday, and the soldier, from 1st Battalion The Rifles, killed in Afghanistan yesterday. At a time of Christmas their families are uppermost in our thoughts.
First, on security, our aim has been to entrench security improvements by putting Iraqis in charge of their own defence and policing, and our most recent contribution has been to help with training thousands of new Iraqi forces and police men and women. In total, the UK has helped to train more than 20,000 troops and more than 22,000 police. In total, across Iraq, 500,000 troops and police have been trained by the Americans, the UK and other forces. In addition, we have mentored three brigades of 14 Division, with 9,000 troops to become combat ready—the very troops who have repeatedly mounted successful independent operations, making Basra now safer for its citizens. As a result, in the past year, violence and criminality in the Basra region have fallen dramatically. Yesterday, I met the commander of 14 Division and Iraqi security forces and their embedded British training teams working with them in Basra. I can tell the House that our commanders judge that training is making good progress and is now nearing completion.
The second task is to strengthen Iraq's emerging democracy. At the heart of embedding democracy is the most immediate task of ensuring successful local, provincial elections. Provincial elections are now scheduled for
The third task is reconstruction, giving the Iraqi people an economic stake in the future. This has meant restoring economic activity and building basic services in the Basra area. Recent proposals for new investment in the Basra area now amount to $9 billion, and, with assistance from Mr Michael Wareing, the Department for International Development has helped to arrange 18 investment missions. Following our London and Kuwait investment conferences, the new Basra Investment Commission, which we have helped to establish, is hosting a major investment conference today in Istanbul.
In addition, the Basra Development Commission has launched a youth employment scheme which is already working with nearly 100 employers to give work experience and training to, potentially, thousands of young Iraqi people, and we have helped to rebuild the economic infrastructure. Since 2003, the UK has spent £100 million on giving more than 1 million people improved access to clean water and power. Basra airport, which is central to future economic development, is now under effective Iraqi civilian control, delivering on the commitment I outlined to the House in July. This includes air traffic control and management of the airport terminal, which is now under the control of the Iraqi authorities. We expect to complete formal handover arrangements at the turn of the year. Since criminal gangs were driven out of the port of Umm Qasr by the operation Charge of the Knights this spring, there are now plans for major port expansion. New investor proposals and contracts, including from British companies, offer the potential to make Basra once again the major trading hub in the region.
So, our troops will have the legal base that they need for the future. Once we have finally completed our four tasks, including the training for the headquarters and specialists of 14 Division—with the precise timing of its completion decided by commanders on the ground—the fundamental change of mission, which I described in this House last summer, will take place at the latest by
Yesterday, Mr Maliki and I agreed that Britain's future role will focus on continuing protection of Iraq's oil platforms in the northern Gulf against attack, together with long-term training of the Iraqi navy—work that I saw for myself at Umm Qasr—as well as support for training the officers of the Iraqi armed forces. In other words, there will be the realisation of the normal defence relationship, similar to that with other key partners in the region, which, as I agreed with Mr Maliki in July, was our joint objective for 2009.
This relationship will of course be just one strand of a broader enduring relationship with democratic Iraq, which I discussed yesterday with Prime Minister Maliki. Our future relationship will be one of partnership. We agreed to continue the shift of focus to economic, commercial, cultural and educational relations. The UK will maintain a large embassy, headed by a senior ambassador in Baghdad. We will still maintain small missions in both Basra and Erbil.
The embassy in Baghdad will expand its commercial office and the Department for International Development will expand its programme of economic advice in Baghdad. We have discussed with Prime Minister Maliki a plan for British companies to provide expertise to the Iraqi oil ministry and how Britain can help Iraq's plans to give 10,000 Iraqi students overseas scholarships.
In the past five and a half years, Iraq has faced great challenges and has endured dark days, but it has also made very significant progress. We can be proud of the way our forces carried out their mission in the most difficult times and we can be proud of what they have accomplished. In my discussions with Prime Minister Maliki, with the two vice presidents, with Basra Governor Wa'ili and with the army leadership, I was assured of Iraqis' continuing gratitude for Britain's role in freeing Iraq from tyranny. And so the UK's new relationship with the new Iraq is one justly earned by the efforts and sacrifice of our forces, and our contributions to peace and reconstruction.
Iraq has many challenges to confront in the days to come. No road it takes will be easy. But, today, levels of violence across the whole of Iraq are at their lowest since 2003. Economic growth in 2008 should be almost 10 per cent. Yesterday, in Basra, I was told that for just 35 seats in the provincial assembly more than 1,270 candidates, with 53 different party labels, were standing for election. As Iraq approaches its second free provincial elections, democracy is growing. In supporting and protecting the progress we have made, the British campaign has endured great hardship and sacrifice.
Yesterday, I stood with the Chief of the Defence Staff, the head of the Iraqi army in Basra and our forces outside our headquarters in Basra in front of the memorial wall naming and commemorating every single one of the 178 British service men and women who have lost their lives in Iraq in the service of our country. It was a fitting and moving tribute to men and women we must never forget. Because remembrance is vitally important, the Defence Secretary and I have decided, after consultation, that we shall bring that memorial wall now standing in Basra home to a fitting resting place of its own in our own country and we will do so when at the end of July the last of our combat troops leaves Basra. It is a memorial now for ever to be in Britain. I commend this Statement to the House.