Iraq — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:20 pm on 25th June 2014.

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Photo of Baroness Warsi Baroness Warsi Senior Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Jointly with the Department for Communities and Local Government), Senior Minister of State (Department for Communities and Local Government) (Faith and Communities) (also in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office) 8:20 pm, 25th June 2014

My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to debate a timely issue of growing concern. Noble Lords will be aware of the Statement on Iraq made by my right honourable friend, the Foreign Secretary, which I repeated to this House last week. I described the violent attacks by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant on the city of Mosul. In the following days ISIL rapidly advanced south on the main road to Baghdad, seizing control of towns including Shirqat and Tikrit, some 110 miles north of the capital. Initially, Iraqi forces proved unable to resist ISIL’s attacks, but on 17 June Government forces were able to halt ISIL’s rapid advance towards Baghdad at the town of Samarra, which lies about 80 miles north of the capital.

Since its initial surge, ISIL has consolidated its control of much of western and northern Iraq, outside the Kurdistan region. Over the weekend, there were reports that ISIL had taken control of the Qaim and Waleed border crossings with Syria. This would give ISIL control of Iraq’s entire border with Syria, with the exception of crossings in the Kurdistan region. Baiji—the site of Iraq’s largest oil refinery—has seen intense fighting. Production has been stopped. A number of foreign workers were based at the refinery, but thankfully a small number of British nationals who were there were able to leave and are safe.

Towards the end of last week we saw further fighting at Baquba, 37 miles north-east of Baghdad, and Tal Afar, 30 miles west of Mosul. Both have since seen fierce fighting between ISIL and Iraqi security forces. The fall of Tal Afar and the capture of its airport is thought to have given ISIL further access to weapons and ammunition left by the ISF. The Kurdistan region remains more stable, but the Kurdish Peshmerga forces have also been involved in fighting ISIL, and have reported some casualties. The situation remains fluid and very dangerous.

The speed and brutality of ISIL’s attacks have caused widespread suffering among ordinary Iraqis. The UN announced yesterday that it can confirm the deaths of 1,075 Iraqis so far in June, many of whom were civilians. However, it is also clear that the real figure is likely to be much higher. We have seen other alarming reports of ISIL’s brutality, despite suggestions that life has returned to normal in Mosul. As we have seen in Syria, a period of normality has been followed by horrifying and cruel treatment of the population through targeted violence and barbaric punishments. There are reports that the women of Mosul have been attacked, including being subjected to acts of sexual violence.

There are also high-profile reports of ISIL’s treatment of captured Iraqi security force personnel. Last week we saw the images of summary executions by ISIL, including what is thought to have been up to 1,700 air force recruits. There have also been humiliating and harrowing videos of Iraqi soldiers being tortured and intimidated. Such scenes play an all-too-familiar part of ISIL’s conduct in Syria. Many Iraqis will remember and fear a return of the open sectarian violence seen between 2006 and 2007. It is not possible to verify individual cases, but given what we know about ISIL, we fear these reports could be accurate.

ISIL has also taken a number of international hostages during its recent attacks, which is consistent with its tactics in Syria. More than 90 Turkish citizens are thought to have been taken, including staff from the Turkish consulate-general in Mosul. Also, 40 Indian nationals were taken from a bus as they attempted to escape the fighting. Our thoughts are with those people and their families.

ISIL’s stated goal is to establish a state that does not recognise borders, including ungoverned space in Iraq and Syria. We know from Syria that ISIL would use violence, extortion and intimidation to dominate those whom it seeks to control. There can be no compromise with ISIL and it poses a great danger to the Iraqi people. It appears that ISIL has exploited political and social divisions in Iraq to falsely portray itself as an alternative to Iraq’s democratically elected government. ISIL has formed loose alliances with other armed groups, including former Baathists—the remnants of the old Saddam regime—and disaffected people in the mainly Sunni-majority provinces they now control.

Sadly, this does say much about underlying divisions in Iraq. That is why we are clear that, alongside measures to restore security, we need an urgent political solution. The vast majority of Iraqis do not want to return to the worst of sectarian violence. The support of moderate Sunnis was vital in defeating al-Qaeda in 2006, and so it will be again to drive ISIL out of Iraq’s communities. This will mean inclusive politics and addressing the needs of that community.

The situation in Iraq is of the highest priority and Ministers have been fully engaged in work on how we respond to this threat to Iraq’s stability and security implications. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister chaired a meeting of the National Security Council last Wednesday, which discussed the British Government’s response to the current situation. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has spoken with regional Foreign Ministers, including Iraqi Foreign Minister Zebari, Prince Saud of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif and Turkish Foreign Minister Davutoglu, with whom he discussed the welfare of the kidnapped Turkish citizens. He has also been in close contact with Secretary Kerry, who visited Baghdad earlier this week, to share our assessment of the situation and to discuss how we can work together and with allies to make some progress. We strongly support Secretary Kerry’s efforts and we agreed on the vital need for Iraqi leaders to work urgently for an inclusive political solution, as well as responding to the immediate security challenge.

On Monday, my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary was in Luxembourg, where he discussed the situation with his EU counterparts. He had a further opportunity to discuss the situation with NATO Foreign Ministers in Brussels yesterday. My right honourable friend the Defence Secretary visited the Gulf this week to discuss the situation with regional allies. He reiterated our commitment to regional security and the constructive role that countries in the region can and must play in tackling the threat from extremism. I hope to be able to update this House of further developments in coming days.

The Government have made it clear that we are not planning a military intervention in Iraq. This is a fight that must be led by Iraqis, but we will consider options to support them where we can. First, we have been promoting political unity among those who support a democratic future for Iraq. Secondly, we stand ready to offer assistance where appropriate and possible. Thirdly, we are helping to alleviate the suffering of those affected by the recent violence. I will address each of these in turn.

It is vital for the immediate and long-term security and stability of Iraq that its political leaders put aside their differences and work together in the interests of a united and inclusive country. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary made this clear when he spoke to the Iraqi Foreign Minister last week. Millions of Iraqis voted in elections in April this year. On 16 June, the Iraqi Supreme Court ratified those election results for all but a small number of newly elected MPs. There is now a clear process to be followed for the formation of a new Government. The Council of Representatives is expected to meet next week and we must begin this work in earnest. This is a time for urgency. Iraqi leaders cannot afford to delay this process. Only the people of Iraq should decide who leads them. However, it is clear that Iraq now needs a unity Government who can address the immediate security situation and the underlying divisions that weaken the country. That will include making difficult decisions and compromises, but the need to do that is clear.

On the issue of assistance to the Iraqi Government, we are urgently looking at other ways to help Iraq to stabilise the security situation. We will continue to liaise closely with our allies.

The Government’s highest priority, of course, is the security of the UK, which means working to stem the flow of foreign fighters into Syria and potentially Iraq. It also means supporting groups such as the moderate opposition in Syria, who are fighting ISIL and squeezing the extremists.

As with so many conflicts, the most vulnerable are often the victims. ISIL’s attack on Mosul on 10 June led to the displacement of 500,000 people, doubling the amount of Iraqis displaced by violence over the past few months. Many have turned to the comparative safety of the Kurdistan region of Iraq—a region which is already host to some 220,000 Syrian refugees.

The UK was the first country to deploy a team to assess the humanitarian crisis after the attacks. We have announced £5 million-worth of support for NGOs to help with water supply and sanitation, to provide assistance with camp construction and to provide emergency food and medicine. We will continue to look at what more we can do to alleviate this suffering. I also welcome the announcement by the European Union of €5 million of support to help displaced people.

The situation in Iraq underlines the need to back those groups in the region, including in Syria, which are able and willing to counter the extremists and which have a pluralist and inclusive vision for their country. That is why we are increasing our support to the moderate opposition in Syria. They are defending the Syrian people against both the extremists and the brutality of the Assad regime. ISIL’s ability to operate in both Syria and Iraq should be of concern for the whole international community. The only sustainable solution to the crisis in Syria is to reach a negotiated political transition by mutual consent.

While the majority of ISIL’s fighters are drawn from Iraq and Syria, there is also a significant number of foreign fighters. We estimate that about 400 British nationals have travelled to Syria to fight. Not all are fighting alongside extremist groups, but some will inevitably be fighting with ISIL across Syria and Iraq. On 20 June, support for ISIL and other terrorist groups became a criminal offence under the Terrorism Act 2000.

There should be absolutely no doubt that the Government are prepared to take action to protect the UK’s national security. That includes confiscating passports, not allowing people to travel and prosecuting those who break the law. Ultimately, our priority must be to dissuade people from travelling to these areas of conflict in the first place. Our Prevent strategy includes work to identify and support individuals who are at risk of radicalisation.

In conclusion, the situation remains very serious. Her Majesty’s Government are focused closely on developments in Iraq, and we stand ready to help if needed, particularly those most affected by violence. However, this crisis has underlined the deep political divisions in Iraq and the urgent need to restore unity and confidence in Iraqi politics, which will mean responsible leadership that works for the interests of all Iraqis.

I look forward to all contributions today. I beg to move.