Iraq — Statement

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:30 pm on 18th December 2008.

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Photo of Baroness Rawlings Baroness Rawlings Shadow Minister, International Development 2:30 pm, 18th December 2008

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for repeating the Statement and I, too, pay tribute to Lieutenant Aaron Lewis, who was killed in Afghanistan on Monday, and the soldier from 1st Battalion The Rifles who was killed yesterday. I believe that I can speak for the whole House when I say that today's announcement on troop withdrawal from Iraq is most welcome. It will be greeted with huge relief by the families of those still serving. The men and women of the Army, the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force have served this country superbly. Throughout, they have displayed true courage and professionalism in performing the tasks assigned to them. We must remember those who have fallen in Iraq, and those who have been wounded; their families and friends are in our thoughts. We must pay tribute, too, to the Iraqi interpreters who have worked so bravely with our forces.

As the noble Baroness has made clear, the UN mandate expires on 31 December. I am encouraged to hear that swift progress is being made in the Iraqi Council of Representatives to put in place a law that will provide a legal basis for the continued presence of UK forces. It is vital that the legal position of our troops is secure and settled by 31 December. It is also vital that UK forces have exactly the same legal protection as the Americans under their status of forces agreement.

As we consider today's Statement on troop withdrawal, we must also consider three issues: first, the achievement of the past six years; secondly, the handing over; and, thirdly, and perhaps most important, what lessons can be learnt. The past six years have not been without significant achievement. In recent months there has been a dramatic, if imperfect, improvement in security. It is welcome progress that the Maliki Government can now take the lead in upholding security. Importantly, democracy has been given a chance to take firm root in Iraqi soil, which bodes well for the long-term future of the country and the wider region. But the noble Baroness must accept that daily conditions in terms of basic services and economic opportunities for ordinary Iraqis remain dire. It is deeply troubling that human rights abuses are being perpetuated, be they against Christians and other minorities, against women, or against blameless civilians across the country.

That leads on to the second issue: who exactly are we handing over to in Iraq, and what are the prospects for the future? The Iraqi army has increased in size and stature, and that is to be welcomed, but is it not also the case that 4,000 US troops will be needed to support them? Can the noble Baroness give the House her opinion of the ability of the Iraqi security forces and the police to maintain security in the medium term? It is in all our interests that Iraq should remain a united, sovereign country. What is the Government's assessment of the current role of Iran in southern Iraq? I believe that it is vital for Iraq to be able to enjoy normal relations with its neighbours. Are the Government taking steps to encourage all Arab countries to send ambassadors to Iraq?

In terms of the economy, Iraq has established a large fiscal surplus. What steps are the Government taking to make sure that British firms can benefit from that? The Prime Minister mentioned the provision of help for Iraq's oil industry. Does the noble Baroness accept that Iraq's huge natural resources, including oil reserves which may be second only to those of Saudi Arabia, give it the potential to be a leading force for development and prosperity in the Middle East? Does she agree that the goal must be to see Iraq re-established as a stable and key nation in the region, and that we must use all our diplomatic resources and skills to see that position restored so that the Iraqi people and nation can regain respect after the harrowing years of destruction?

The third issue is the matter of lessons to be learnt for elsewhere, in particular Afghanistan. Does the noble Baroness agree that Iraq has taught us some difficult lessons on the need for such missions to be carefully planned, not just in terms of the war—fighting—but in the post-conflict phase? Does she further agree that they must have clear and specific objectives and that they must be properly resourced at the outset? Does she accept that the mission in Iraq showed grave deficiencies in all these respects and that it is essential that we do not perpetuate these mistakes in the continuing mission in Afghanistan? Is it not the case that in Iraq it was when key sections of the population decided to lend support to the Iraqi Government, and not just the insurgency, that the real breakthrough was made? Is that not a most significant lesson and one of equal importance for Afghanistan?

My right honourable friend in another place, Mr Cameron, has urged the Prime Minister to announce a full-scale independent inquiry, for which we on these Benches have been calling for so long. With that, we can draw the maximum benefit from all these lessons. I am sure the noble Baroness agrees that it is vital that we do not repeat past mistakes. Such an inquiry would not simply re-examine the decision to go to war, important though that is, but would examine the mistakes that were made in its planning and conduct. I do not see why such an inquiry need wait until all our troops have been withdrawn. To suggest otherwise might mean that we have to wait many years before holding an inquiry, which would not benefit our soldiers in Afghanistan now. It should examine the origins and conduct of the war in their entirety, and should be able to question Ministers, including all members of the War Cabinet. Will the noble Baroness add her support to the call to set up such an inquiry so that we can learn from the mistakes that have been made?

I know I am not alone when I suggest that this is just one of the very great debts we owe to our Armed Forces.