Back to website

UK Forces (Iraq)

3.32 pm

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a statement about the deployment of UK forces in Iraq.

There has been considerable speculation in the media over the past several days about the United Kingdom deploying forces outside its current area of operations in southern Iraq. The only relevant fact is that the UK military received a request for assistance on 10 October from the US military command in Iraq. Such requests and discussions between allies are routine. There is regular dialogue with our coalition allies and with the Iraqi security forces on all aspects of operations in Iraq. Requests for assistance form part of these exchanges.

The actual disposition of coalition forces in Iraq has been adjusted regularly since the end of combat operations. The Danish contingent, for example, has taken on a greater share of responsibility within Multi-National Division (South-East), and the Japanese have deployed a 500-strong contingent into the Dutch area of operations.

This request, if agreed, would involve UK land forces operating outside MND(S-E). It is worth bearing it in mind that Royal Air Force personnel have been operating over the whole of Iraq when required to support the coalition, and that some British personnel are based in Baghdad to support coalition operations. Other British land forces have previously operated outside MND(S-E).

Iraqi security forces and coalition forces have recently been involved in intensified operations to restore areas under the control of militants and terrorists to the authority of the Iraqi Interim Government. Recent operations in Najaf, in Samarra and in North Babil have been undertaken as part of this effort. The political process is moving ahead as a result of these actions. This strategy is designed to increase pressure on and deal with those terrorists who are trying to prevent the rebuilding of Iraq, and who threaten the holding of free elections in January.

The US request is for a limited number of UK ground forces to be made available to relieve US forces, to allow them in turn to participate in further operations elsewhere in Iraq, to maintain the continuing pressure on terrorists. The request does not ask for UK troops to be deployed to Baghdad city or to Falluja.

We are obviously considering the request. A number of issues require assessment, including timing, the length of the potential operation, command and control arrangements, logistics and which forces would be the most appropriate to conduct the operation. None of these details has, as yet, been decided, and a UK reconnaissance team will deploy to the area tomorrow to provide further information, which will inform the chiefs of staff. I expect the final recommendation from the Chief of the Defence Staff by the middle of the week. All these factors require careful consideration. Once we have made a decision, I will inform the House in the usual way.

Speculation over the weekend has focused on the suggestion that the request is somehow political, and that its timing is linked to elections. I want to make it
18 Oct 2004 : Column 626
clear that the request is a military request, and although it is linked to elections, it is linked not to the US elections but with efforts to create the best possible security situation in which to hold the Iraqi elections in January.

A number of commentators have voiced concerns about UK forces coming under US command, and about the rules of engagement. If we agree to this request, the arrangements will ensure that UK forces have a specific task; they will be responsible for a particular area. There are no practical difficulties for UK forces operating alongside those from the US. Our forces are fully engaged with all our coalition partners at every level of planning. UK forces work daily alongside forces from Italy, Denmark and other nations, including Poland, the Netherlands and Japan. This is a matter of routine, and it is an effective and practical way of ensuring coherence in our own area and with the areas surrounding it.

UK rules of engagement are more than adequate for tasks of the type envisaged; there is no need to adjust them. They will provide proper protection for UK forces, as they have during operations in volatile areas in our own sector, such as in al-Amarah.

It is worth noting that as the capabilities of the Iraqi security forces develop, they will expand the areas under their independent control. As a result, coalition forces will need to become more able to act flexibly in support of the security forces as they, in turn, take on greater responsibility for the protection of Iraqi civilians and property.

The Government remain totally committed to the holding of free elections in January, and to seeing a Government in Iraq who take their rightful place in the international community and who deliver prosperity and a new future for the Iraqi people. That should unite all parts of the House. It is right that the United Kingdom should do what it can to contribute to this fundamental strategic objective.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex) (Con): I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and for providing an advance copy earlier today. I start by saying that the Opposition express again with great pride our highest confidence in, and admiration for, the professionalism, courage and skill of the men and women of the British armed forces serving in Iraq. We fully support the coalition as it seeks to bring democracy, stability and freedom to Iraq, and to preserve her territorial integrity; and we agree with the Secretary of State that we should do what we can to contribute to the fundamental strategic objective.

I note the Secretary of State's assertion that no decisions have yet been finally taken, but may I, on behalf of Her Majesty's loyal Opposition, raise a number of important markers that we hope he will bear in mind? As he moves to a decision on this deployment, will he consider following? Although we of course instinctively wish to assist our American allies, does he not agree that such a deployment would leave a big capability gap in Multi-National Division (South-East)? Will he also confirm that as the British divisional reserve, the Black Watch has itself been heavily engaged in that role since its deployment in MND (S-E)?

Given that the security situation could well deteriorate between now and the Iraqi elections, how does the Secretary of State plan to fill such an important
18 Oct 2004 : Column 627
capability gap, were this deployment to be made? Which Warrior-equipped battle group would undertake the role of the divisional reserve?

I turn to the issue of British troops coming under United States' command. Britain and the United States are, after all, the closest of allies and we have always operated together, but will the Secretary of State spell out how he sees the important detail of the likely command and control arrangements? Such a deployment would represent a fundamental change. Despite the assurances given in his statement, does he not agree that the rules of engagement will need to be extremely robust to cope with the change of area and the possibility of support from the Americans, who may well be using almost entirely different ROE?

Further and vitally, may we have the Secretary of State's absolute assurance that British troops, who are subject to the International Criminal Court—in contrast to their US counterparts, who are not—will not be compromised by any likely changes in the rules of engagement? The Secretary of State must answer that question and give the House an absolute assurance in this respect: what limit in time and manpower do the Government intend to assign to the deployment?

Does the Secretary of State further agree that, if our troops are deployed, they should have the power to influence the decision-making process rather than just the responsibility to execute it? Is he accordingly satisfied as to the general scale and input of British views and expertise in current coalition counter-insurgency planning? What is the latest date on which the US has requested that our troops be deployed, and is it not leaving it all to rather short notice to send out a recce group tomorrow to report back with the Chief of the Defence Staff's decision due on Wednesday? Do not US forces have their own deployable reserves, or are they all already fully engaged? Will the Secretary of State explain to the House what he believes to be the operational justification for this proposed substantial change to our dispositions, and will he also explain the nature of the military advice that he has thus far been given?

In view of what the Secretary of State has said, is he aware that Black Watch was told last Tuesday that it would not be coming home in November and that it would be redeployed? The Secretary of State needs to understand the feelings of the families, who will have watched with disbelief the unfolding shambles of the last few days and the Government's uncertainty and inability to make clear and prompt decisions on such vital matters.

Finally, given recent events and the need to look to the future, does not the Secretary of State now accept that it is fundamentally irresponsible to cut four infantry battalions from the order of battle while the Army is so clearly and obviously under such great pressure?

Mr. Hoon: Again, I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's unqualified support, and I hope that our American allies feel the same about the support that he appeared to give them—not least because he was quoted in The Sunday Times this Sunday as saying:

18 Oct 2004 : Column 628

No doubt that will be read with great enthusiasm in the White House and, indeed, in the Pentagon. Notwithstanding the hon. Gentleman's criticisms of our American allies, this is about a request from a close ally to provide assistance in a very difficult operation in and around the important centres that the Americans have been attacking in recent days. That has been designed to ensure that the terrorists do not have the opportunity of killing more innocent Iraqis and more innocent citizens not only of the UK but of other countries as well. That is why it is so important that, if we accept the request, we take the necessary action. It is a coalition effort—one ally strongly supporting another.

I shall try to deal with each of the hon. Gentleman's questions as best I can, given that a number of the issues necessarily fall to be decided by the chiefs of staff following appropriate information on the reconnaissance, to which I referred. It is important that we bear in mind the importance of assisting allies. To that extent, I agree with the hon. Gentleman. The Black Watch has been heavily engaged, and if we take the decision to move it or other appropriate forces north we should cover the gaps in our capability. We are mindful of that.

The rules of engagement that we provide for British troops are already extremely robust and I do not anticipate any difficulty with them, either in their own right or as far as any possible remote threat from the ICC is concerned. There will be no compromise on those rules of engagement. I was slightly surprised over the weekend to hear the hon. Gentleman apparently calling for their publication. No doubt he has reflected on that since, as no Government—certainly no Conservative Government—have contemplated that in the past. I draw his attention in that respect to his own remarks in Hansard when he was Minister of State for the Armed Forces.

It is right that we do not set out the time limit in detail; it is a matter for military advice. The situation is similar for the scale and input of the UK's contribution. That equally applies to any latest date for deployment. I have set out the strong operational justification for the deployment. I do not believe, however, that it in any way affects our decision to take advantage of the withdrawal of four battalions from Northern Ireland, not least because this is an extra deployment that will require support, as hon. Members will recognise if they consider the decision calmly and rationally. The reason for readjusting our Army numbers to allow more support to logisticians and signallers is to permit this type of extra commitment. There is no shortage of infantry battalions, but there is an acute shortage of those who support the battalions.

Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford) (LD): I also thank the Secretary of State for notice of his statement and associate Liberal Democrats with the statements of support for United Kingdom forces in Iraq. Their performance in difficult conditions has been outstanding and we offer them our wholehearted support.

The United States has 130,000 military personnel in Iraq. Is the proposed deployment of 650 extra British troops purely for operational reasons? If so, what are those reasons, and why specifically British forces and
18 Oct 2004 : Column 629
not other United States forces or other coalition forces used to working under US control? Are none of those available?

Will the Secretary of State be specific about whether he has put the Black Watch under a warning to stay inside Iraq? Given that the Black Watch is the reserve force for the south, what other arrangements will be made to ensure that the effective capability of our force in the south will not be affected, especially at a time when the situation could deteriorate? What consideration has been given to the logistics implications, in particular for Warrior vehicles taken away from the south? Will he comment on the morale of the Black Watch, given that it was supposed to return to the UK in two weeks?

We know that American military tactics in Iraq are different from our own. Indeed, General Jackson told the House of Commons Defence Committee just that two weeks ago. Will our forces have to work under a different military doctrine? If the deployment is required for convincing operational reasons, will the Secretary of State assure the House that he will not go against the advice of the chiefs of staff who are going out to Iraq tomorrow to make their assessments?

Mr. Hoon: I assure the House that this is a military request, as I made clear. It is made for clear operational reasons. The House will not be surprised to learn that there is a continuing effort against those parts of Iraq that have been harbouring and sheltering terrorists. It is necessary to deal with those areas, and some have already been dealt with. Samarra was an outstanding military operation and proved very successful. It is necessary to maintain such operations to ensure that free elections take place in January, so there is a clear operational justification.

Incidentally, I cannot think of any other country that has worked more closely with US forces in recent times than Britain has. If the hon. Gentleman's argument is that those countries that have worked closely with the US should step forward, we would be the first in the queue. Attention will be paid to the provision of appropriate reserve forces and to necessary logistics.

I, too, asked about morale in the Black Watch. I emphasise that the Black Watch is toured for six months, as all British Army units are, and it will be back in the UK before the completion of that tour of duty. I was concerned that members of the Black Watch had been told informally that they might expect to return before those six months had elapsed. Having raised the problem of morale, I was left in no doubt that if there was any question about their commitment to participate in such an operation, I could take my criticisms and put them somewhere else—I paraphrase.

I do not accept that the deployment will involve a different military approach from the one that the UK adopts in its area of operations. As I said, if the operation is agreed to, the UK forces will be responsible for a discrete and particular area.

Mr. Frank Cook (Stockton, North) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State call to mind the statements of his counterpart in the United States and indeed the President that the US forces can handle events in Iraq and that there should be no need for the
18 Oct 2004 : Column 630
UK forces to get involved? My right hon. Friend will also have noted reports of American statements that the British attitude is one of institutionalised cowardice. Will he assure the House that he will bear both those elements in mind before coming to a decision—if he has not already done so?

Mr. Hoon: I assure my hon. Friend that no decision has been reached. I have set out the necessary steps before any such decision is made and, as I have already indicated, I will inform the House as soon as possible once the decision has been taken. I will certainly take his observations into account, but I wish to emphasise to him and to the House that we are part of a coalition and it is necessary for the participants to support each other. That is one of the factors that we will have to take into account before reaching any conclusion on that request.

Annabelle Ewing (Perth) (SNP): As the MP for Perth, where the Black Watch has its regimental headquarters, I know that people in my constituency do not understand how it could be operationally necessary to deploy the 600-plus battalion in the US zone, where there are already more than 130,000 US soldiers. What does the Secretary of State have to say to my constituents who are anxiously awaiting news about their loved ones, who are currently on their second tour of duty within a year and who are being stabbed in the back at home by the Government's plan to disband their historic regiment? My constituents want to know when the Black Watch will come home.

Mr. Hoon: I thought that I had explained. I recognise that the hon. Lady represents a number of people closely concerned with the Black Watch. The Black Watch would have expected to fulfil a six-month tour of duty, as is consistent with all Army units. However, informally, it might have expected to return after four months. Those expectations may not be satisfied if the request is agreed to on an early basis. I am sure that the Black Watch will have strong views about that and, as I said a few moments ago, I raised the question of morale in the Black Watch, given the efforts that it had made in the past. I am sure that the hon. Lady knows the Black Watch much better than I do, but the message that I got was that it was determined to carry through this operation should it be decided that it should participate.

Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend accept that there is a clear perception—among those, such as me, who opposed the war and those who supported it—that British troops have been more intelligently and sensitively led in Iraq than the US forces? At a time when two thirds of Iraqi civilians who are killed die at the hands of the coalition, is not this the time to review the conduct of the war rather than to place British forces, which have done a fantastic job in their own way, under the command of the US?

Mr. Hoon: I have had the privilege of visiting British troops in their area of operations on several occasions and I acknowledge the remarkable way in which they have gone about their job. It is sometimes unfair to compare them with US troops in and around Baghdad,
18 Oct 2004 : Column 631
who have faced a wholly different kind of threat from that faced by British troops in the south. There have been some real difficulties in our area of operation, such as in al-Amarah, which has been superbly handled but has put great strain on British troops. The insurgency and terrorist threats that the Americans are dealing with are of a different order from those that British troops have faced in, for example, Basra. It is important that we offer our assistance, as part of the coalition, when it is requested.

Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury) (Con): Warminster in my constituency is currently the home of Lieutenant-Colonel Cowan and his battalion, who face a move to northern Iraq. What assessment has been made of the likely casualties that may be sustained in the event that that move takes place? Many of my constituents and their families will be deeply concerned.

Mr. Hoon: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that issue. It is obviously a matter that will have to be taken into account, not only by the chiefs of staff as they reach their conclusion based on the reconnaissance that will take place tomorrow, but by Ministers, who will report to the House about it.

Mr. Iain Luke (Dundee, East) (Lab): I echo the sentiments that have been expressed about the redeployment of the Black Watch for the third time. I have no doubt that the regiment will serve admirably, as always; it will do a great job and morale will be as good as ever. As there is obviously a greater need for American troops to be involved in combat in the run-up to the elections in January, does my right hon. Friend foresee further requests from the Americans for more British troops to be redeployed outwith their area of operations? Are we not getting into a quagmire, given the mishandling of the war by America, which could lead us into a Vietnam situation?

Mr. Hoon: I have been at great pains to emphasise that this is a specific request for a particular purpose, arising from the need to deal with the terrorist threat in particular cities. Those cities are well known; Samarra has already been dealt with, and there has been negotiation to reduce the level of threat in places such as Sadr City. Incidentally, that has been of considerable benefit to British forces in the south of the country, as there seems—at any rate, for the moment—to be agreement among certain of the Shi'a militant forces to relax their efforts. That has obviously made life calmer, for the present, in the south. It is important to emphasise that this is about ensuring that the terrorist threat in particular parts of the so-called Sunni triangle is reduced, to allow the prospect of elections in January.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green) (Con): I am one of those who continue to support the war and believe that it is right and that what is going on is right to bring democratic government to Iraq, but it is important that when the Secretary of State comes to the Dispatch Box he clarifies the position exactly, to show that there will be a genuine and clear military advantage, that our troops, under the guidance
18 Oct 2004 : Column 632
of the chiefs of staff, will bring added value to the operations that are taking place in Iraq and that the rules of engagement are clear. I have one simple question about something that I feel he glossed over slightly and which was brought up by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames)—the ICC. Will the Secretary of State explain how our different approach will not end up creating huge problems for us in the conduct of operations under the command, or associated command, of the Americans?

Mr. Hoon: This is not necessarily the occasion on which to debate the precise terms of the ICC statute. The right hon. Gentleman knows that we have robust rules of engagement and that we have consistently supported our troops and will not allow them to be placed in jeopardy due to some legal failure, or indeed as a result of our signing up to a statute, which, among other things, requires that the ICC would intervene only when the state—in this case, the United Kingdom—had not taken appropriate action. That is a clear difference between our position and that of almost any other country. We would take robust action where it was appropriate.

Mr. Robin Cook (Livingston) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend confirm that it is the restraint that has been shown by British troops in peacekeeping that has earned them respect among the Iraqis? Will it really be possible for them to maintain that restraint if they are deployed to a US sector that has been policed for more than a year by US forces who have not shown the same level of restraint? Does my right hon. Friend recall that the last time US forces besieged Falluja, they left Iraq in uproar over the many civilian casualties? In assessing the request, will he consider carefully the risk to British troops, in that if they free up US forces for the next attack they may be seen by some Iraqis as equally responsible for civilian casualties over which neither he nor they will have any control whatever?

Mr. Hoon: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for the tribute he pays to British troops, but I qualify his observation to this extent: British forces are able to adjust their approach and tactics in the light of the threat they face. They will have to be less restrained—if I may adopt his word—if there is a direct physical threat to them. I hope that will not be the case, but obviously they have the flexibility and sophistication to be able to adjust appropriately to the conditions. What has changed since the last time that Falluja was approached in the way that it is proposed to deal with it is that sovereignty has passed to the Iraqi Interim Government and it will ultimately be their decision as to whether those operations take place. Indeed, significant numbers of Iraqi forces on the ground will participate in any operation, as they did in Samarra. This is no longer simply a question of the Americans deciding and doing, but a matter for the Iraqi Interim Government.

Mr. Kenneth Clarke (Rushcliffe) (Con): Does the Secretary of State accept that the difference between the British and American approaches to peacekeeping is not just a question of defending themselves against attack—British troops are just as robust in defending themselves against direct attack as any of their allies—but involves
18 Oct 2004 : Column 633
an approach to peacekeeping based on trying to keep the support of all the favourably disposed, non-insurgent civilian population? As the latest deployment is plainly intended to facilitate a further assault on Falluja, will the Government take the opportunity to try to exercise more influence on the Americans in their conduct of operations? In particular, will they stress the need to ensure that the force used is proportionate to the threat that is definitely known, and that action is conducted on a basis that minimises the threat to civilians and reduces the amount of air and artillery attack on densely populated areas of a city?

Mr. Hoon: The right hon. and learned Gentleman is at risk of making unfortunate generalisations about the US and the UK. I have conceded already that, in those areas where US forces are under a direct and regular threat from terrorist organisations, they must necessarily respond robustly. He quite fairly said that that would be the case if British troops faced the same kind of threat, but he must recognise that there are large parts of Iraq where US forces are deployed where, frankly, there is a degree of restraint—to adopt a phrase used by my right hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook)—and a degree of interaction with the local population that are no different from the way in which British forces operate in the south. The response of any force to a particular situation must depend on the threat that it faces and how often that threat occurs.

Sir Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab): I accept what my right hon. Friend says about this being a military request; I also accept what he says about the response to that request being a matter of timing. Will he take into account the fact that many hon. Members would hope that that timing will take into account the possibility of United Kingdom forces risking their lives being exploited politically in a closely fought United States election?

Mr. Hoon: I am very conscious of that, which is why I was at pains to emphasise that this is not about the politics of the US election; it is, however, about the politics of the Iraqi election in January.

Mr. Ian Taylor (Esher and Walton) (Con): The Secretary of State convinced the House that the terms of engagement will be sufficiently robust and I have no doubt that our forces are quite capable of operating outside their current area of operations. The problem is that a lot of the terrorism that they will take on is inevitable because of the way that we went into the war. Quite a lot of the problems that we are experiencing, along with our American allies, is that that has been provoked since we have been in Iraq because we did not have a proper plan for the peace thereafter. Regardless of what the chiefs of staff say, what does he believe will make the British influence sufficient to ensure that we do not get ourselves sucked further into a morass in Iraq, which is very dangerous and unlikely to be stable before the elections in January?

Mr. Hoon: Generally, I would agree with the hon. Gentleman's premise, but on this occasion, I do not quite follow why the current attacks by vicious, brutal
18 Oct 2004 : Column 634
and ruthless terrorists have anything to do with the way in which the war was prosecuted. Indeed, many of the people that we are trying to deal with in places such as Falluja are not even Iraqi citizens and were not based in Iraq at the time. The truth is that we are trying to deal with people who have killed more Iraqis than they have killed coalition forces—by a huge number. Trying to deal with those people is vital, and I hope that all hon. Members would support that if we are to restore Iraq to the international community and to legitimacy.

Geraldine Smith (Morecambe and Lunesdale) (Lab): My right hon. Friend must be aware of the widespread public alarm at the possible deployment of British troops. Does he not realise that what the British people really want to see is a clearly defined exit strategy from Iraq, not greater commitments and greater danger for our troops out there?

Mr. Hoon: If my hon. Friend will forgive me, I believe that there is a clear exit strategy: it is to ensure that elections can take place and that the security conditions are right to permit those elections and the election of a democratic Iraqi Government, together with, as I indicated, the training of Iraqi police, security forces and a new Iraqi army that increasingly takes responsibility for Iraqi security. That seems to me to be a clear exit strategy, and I hope that she supports it.

Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): May I remind the Secretary of State that 3,000 troops from the Colchester garrison served Queen and country in the Iraq war, a war that we now know was fought under a false prospectus, and that 500 further troops from Colchester served in the peacekeeping? He will be aware that several troops from Colchester lost their lives. He may be of the view that public opinion in this country does not link the request with the American presidential election, but clearly public opinion in this country does. May I ask him specifically whether, if the Black Watch is moved into the American zone, any further British troops will be called in to make up for the gap left by the Black Watch?

Mr. Hoon: I made it clear earlier that that will be one of the considerations that will have to be addressed if we decide to accept this request.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab): Is my right hon. Friend aware that the same President Bush who now wants the British forces to bail him out is the same man who, above 12 months ago, said that the war was over? Is there not a strange irony about that? Why is it that it has to be done before 2 November? If it is going to be done before then, it is political. It is handing out an oxygen cylinder to this President Bush, who was not elected properly the first time, and giving him a lifeline in order to win again. I have to tell my right hon. Friend that I and many others, not only in the House but outside, do not take kindly to the idea that we are being engaged with President Bush and the Pentagon in order to bail them out.

Mr. Hoon: I shall ensure that my hon. Friend's remarks are fully and thoroughly communicated to our American allies as we consider the timing of any request.
18 Oct 2004 : Column 635

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): When the Secretary of State rebuked my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) for unfortunate generalisations, I assume that he included the Chief of the General Staff, who told the Defence Committee that we fight with the Americans but not necessarily as the Americans. The House will require a great deal of reassurance that this distinction, which is not lost on the Iraqis, can be sustained if this battle group finds itself under American command.

The Secretary of State also said that gaps must be covered. If he is to deploy the divisional reserve, I think that General Rollo and the rest of the troops—particularly those under such pressure in al-Amarah—will want the Secretary of State to be rather more than simply mindful of the necessity to replace the divisional reserve and give them and the House an assurance that the divisional reserve will be replaced if it is to be deployed under American command.

Mr. Hoon: I think that it is very important that we recognise that all countries have a particular style and particular way of conducting operations. The point that I was making in response to the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) was to emphasise the importance of not simply generalising about the way in which different countries conduct military operations. There are many parts of Iraq where Americans are keeping the peace no differently from the way in which British soldiers keep the peace in the south of Iraq.

Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate) (Lab): If the request for assistance is, as has been widely reported, to enable American troops to launch an all-out attack on Falluja, why have the British Government not already said no? Such an attack would result in the deaths of innocent Iraqi civilians, the terrorists having long gone, and will serve only to underline the total failure on the part of the American Government to win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people. Surely it will afford those who are opposed to this country the oxygen to be able to say that one of the best and most highly skilled and disciplined fighting forces in the world—namely the British Army—has been reduced to the level of mercenaries for a Republican White House.

Mr. Hoon: Notwithstanding my hon. Friend's concluding remarks, I hope that she agrees that it is necessary to deal with the kinds of terrorist organisation that are operating from Falluja. It is vital that we deal with that threat to democracy and security. Knowing her very impressive record in condemning injustice, breaches of human rights and murder, I am slightly surprised that she is not saying that this is the right thing for coalition forces—not American forces—to do. As I indicated in response to an earlier question, the final decision as to whether operations are conducted against Falluja will be taken by the Iraqis. It is their country; it is their hearts and minds. If they judge it necessary to deal with the threat to Iraqi citizens, they will be the ones to take the decision.

Sir Teddy Taylor (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con): Although I was one of the minority in favour of the decision to invade Iraq, does the Secretary of State
18 Oct 2004 : Column 636
accept that many people feel that we are not winning the propaganda war in Iraq, especially that for the hearts and minds of the people there? To that extent, may I ask him a simple question: if he goes ahead with putting the extra troops where they are required, will he make it abundantly clear at the same time that the British and American Governments will withdraw their troops when the newly elected government in Iraq takes the view that they can look after the security of the country themselves?

Mr. Hoon: It is vital for the Iraqis to be responsible for looking after their own security, which is why British and other coalition forces are engaged in extensive training programmes to equip Iraq with the right kinds of security forces. I do not accept that the hon. Gentleman is right about the battle for hearts and minds and the question of public opinion in Iraq. If some slight good has come from the appalling and tragic death of Ken Bigley, it is that it has shown to huge numbers of people in Iraq and throughout the Arab world the appalling brutality of which those terrorists are capable. There are clear signs that that terrible death has swung opinion firmly on the side of those who are trying to deal with the terrorists.

Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West) (Lab): My right hon. Friend referred to political perception. Is it not a political reality that in the US election campaign, the role of the allies has become a central area of dispute between the two candidates? Is it not therefore essential that British troops are not seen as being used to favour one candidate over another?

Mr. Hoon: I certainly agree, and that will not happen.

Dr. Jenny Tonge (Richmond Park) (LD): If we refuse the Americans' request, what penalties are we likely to incur?

Mr. Hoon: There would be no penalty, but we would have failed in our duty as an ally and as a country that has closely supported the United States— [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order.

Mr. Malcolm Savidge (Aberdeen, North) (Lab): Given such serious worries as increased risk to our forces, mission creep, and British involvement in military strategies that could cause major civilian casualties, alienate more Iraqis and perhaps be distorted by US domestic politics, will my right hon. Friend assure the House that we will have a full opportunity to debate and deliberate before a decision is taken?

Mr. Hoon: The answer to my hon. Friend's question is the same as the one that I have given him on many previous occasions: it has never been this country's constitutional arrangement that the House of Commons necessarily approves what is in this case the redeployment of forces that have already been committed to a specific theatre. He might take a different view of what the constitutional arrangements
18 Oct 2004 : Column 637
should be, but I assure him and other hon. Members that when any decision is taken, I shall report it to the House immediately.

Sir Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle) (Con): Is it not self-deluding to continue to describe the people defending Falluja as terrorists when the great majority of them are unquestionably Sunni nationalists who regard themselves as Arab patriots? Does the Secretary of State remember that before the war, from my personal experience, I warned him of the difficulties and dangers of fighting in Arab towns, to which he replied, "It depends which side the population is on"? He knows the answer to that question now, does he not?

Mr. Hoon: I do not accept that terrorists such as al-Zarqawi who lead significant numbers of foreign fighters in places such as Falluja are entitled in any way to be described as Sunni nationalists. They are brutal killers and they are killing Iraqis. It is our responsibility, on behalf of the coalition, to make the effort to deal with those people.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): I listened to the Secretary of State and I think I am correct—he will confirm this—that a decision has not been made and that it will be taken on military terms. May I put this simply: I beg him not to accede to the request? In addition to the military aspect, there is a political dimension to the situation, and hon. Members are entitled to ask him to take their views on that into account. Not one member of the parliamentary Labour party has supported the deployment. Many of us find it totally incredible that the United States of America cannot find the logistic support and infantry to fill the gap. I found his response to the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Dr. Tonge) deeply upsetting, because he said that he had not made up his mind but then said that to turn down the request would be letting down allies. It would not. The United Kingdom has given 110 per cent. on this issue, and some of us have provided political cover and support for this Government. I beg him not to try to stretch the envelope too much; otherwise it might burst. Some of us will not stomach it and—

Mr. Speaker: Order. Before the Secretary of State replies, may I say that many hon. Members still wish to speak, and brief supplementaries would be very helpful?

Mr. Hoon: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I am not sure that I can reply to my hon. Friend, because I did not detect a question, but I will certainly take his observations into account.

Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport) (Con): Following earlier questions and answers, does the Secretary of State agree that the courage and determination of our armed forces are such that they will concur with any request that is made to them by the Government?

Mr. Hoon: That is the great strength of armed forces that are answerable constitutionally to Government and to this Parliament.
18 Oct 2004 : Column 638

Mr. David Watts (St. Helens, North) (Lab): It is clear that there might be a strong case for the need for more troops in the American sector, but can the Secretary of State spell out why those troops should be provided by the British Government and not the American?

Mr. Hoon: I have set out the case right from the start of my statement. These are extra operations being conducted in areas of particular difficulty. The US requires extra forces, and extra support from allies, including the United Kingdom, to be able to achieve those operations.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): Does the right hon. Gentleman understand that some of us who opposed this war, and still oppose it, believe none the less that, given the fact that we are there, and subject to the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames), it would be extremely difficult to refuse a request from the United States for military assistance? However, does it not also demonstrate the dangers of our presence? Therefore, will he give an undertaking to the House that he will give no assurance to anybody, explicit or implicit, that the British forces will remain deployed there after the expiration of the current mandate, which runs out in June next year?

Mr. Hoon: As far as the right hon. and learned Gentleman's premise is concerned, he sets out an argument that I have sought to use to persuade hon. Members on both sides of the House. When those who have opposed military operations look at the situation today in Iraq, they should be saying precisely what he said: here we are, we have a very difficult situation, and we have to continue our efforts to restore a degree of security in Iraq, to allow democratic elections to take place and to defeat terrorism. That is precisely the argument that I hope all hon. Members will subscribe to. As for a time limit, I shall not give the right hon. and learned Gentleman any guarantees, but obviously there are legal requirements that the United Kingdom would have to satisfy were the mandate to continue beyond the date that he specified.

Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) (Lab): Will the Secretary of State tell us when exactly was the last time that British troops operated in a war zone under the direct control of a foreign country?

Mr. Hoon: UK forces regularly come under the command of others—and not only of the United States. Whether they are operating in the south, as they are today, or whether they operate, if this request if accepted, under the control of a US commander further north in Iraq, a US commander is still ultimately in charge. A British commander is the No. 2. Whenever we deploy on multinational operations, for example as part of NATO, the commander may well be American or from any other of the NATO states. What my hon. Friend suggests may be unusual is actually a regular occurrence.

Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford) (Con): This is not a time for ambiguity, vacillation or prevarication of any kind: a decision needs to be taken.
18 Oct 2004 : Column 639
Perhaps a decision already has been taken, but if it has not, may I express the hope that we will accede to the request, so long as our commanders on the spot confirm that we have the resources to do the job? We were right to get into this operation alongside our American allies; my only regret is that we did not do it before, and did not complete the job in 1991. Now that we are in, it is very important that we continue to show ourselves to be firm and reliable allies, utterly committed to seeing this thing through and therefore prepared to take our share of the risks of the operation. I believe that the gallant British servicemen and women whom I met in the Gulf on two occasions when I was a defence spokesman would want that.

Mr. Hoon: I have set out to the House the process that we will follow. I assure the hon. Gentleman that when a decision is reached, I shall report it to the House in the usual way.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): Since the Secretary of State appears to have made up his mind, given his response to the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Dr. Tonge), will he tell us whether British troops will be present in the anticipated all-out attack on Falluja after 2 November? Will they be expected to take casualties as the United States has, and will they be involved in that sort of operation? Does he actually have any control over the matter once he has acceded to the request?

Mr. Hoon: I made it clear in my statement that the request does not involve the deployment of British troops to Falluja.

Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells) (Con): The National Security Committee under the Iraqi Interim Government is attended by the American forces commander, but not the British. Why is that? If we are to commit extra forces as the Secretary of State has outlined, will he seek attendance at that committee for the British commander, or is he content for us always to claim great influence over our allies while failing to deliver it where it counts—on the ground?

Mr. Hoon: There is significant British representation at that meeting at a very high level.

Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge) (Lab): Can my right hon. Friend explain why he is considering deploying additional British reserve troops when it is American forces that are under pressure? Will not the people of this country realise that this is political expediency with a large P?

Mr. Hoon: I do not accept that, and I believe that I have answered that question several times already. There is a clear operational reason for conducting the operation to remove the terrorist threat in places such as Falluja. The Americans have made a request of an ally to assist. We shall consider that request very carefully in the next few days.
18 Oct 2004 : Column 640

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD): In answer to an earlier question, the Secretary of State accepted that our forces are so professional and well trained that they will rise to any challenge that is asked of them. Surely, therefore, their political masters have to be that much more responsible and careful about what challenges they ask them to rise to. To that end, what assessment has the right hon. Gentleman made of the overstretch in the US forces such that they cannot find the 600 troops from their own resources?

Mr. Hoon: The hon. Gentleman is right that a careful assessment is required. That assessment will be conducted, but it does not include a detailed assessment of whether the United States is right to make the request. An ally has made a request. It is necessary that we consider it carefully.

Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central) (Lab): My right hon. Friend has been at pains to say that our troops will not be committed in, for example, attacks on Falluja or direct action against terrorists. However, he has failed to say what precisely British troops will be required to do that cannot be done by the many American troops already present. That is particularly important given the fact that if British troops are deployed into the American zone, gaps will be created in the British zone.

Mr. Hoon: The specific reason is to free American forces to conduct extra operations in places such as Falluja where terrorists are well established and are attacking both coalition forces and innocent Iraqi civilians. We have been requested to fill in in the areas left by the American forces who will be engaged in such operations.

Mr. David Tredinnick (Bosworth) (Con): If we start to serve in the American sector, what input in the decision-making process will British commanders on the ground have? What will the relationship with their American counterparts be? What discretion, if any, will they have? Does he not agree that his defence of the morale of the Black Watch is a vindication of regimental system, which he has pledged to destroy?

Mr. Hoon: Let us just deal with the point about the regimental system. Opposition Members have had an entertaining time in their local and, indeed, national newspapers talking about attacks on that system, but there is no such attack. There will still be a regimental system, and I am sure that if the hon. Gentleman reads more carefully the statement that I made to the House and the material that has been published, he will accept that that is the case. That demonstrates the importance of studying the Government's proposals carefully.

Mike Gapes (Ilford, South) (Lab/Co-op): Is there not a danger of exaggerating the political significance in the United States of any decision that we take? Is it not a fact that the woeful economic performance of the Bush Administration and Democrats' anger at what happened four years ago are more likely to decide the outcome of the election than any simple decision made in the House? Could my right hon. Friend assure me that whatever decision we make we will do so in the light
18 Oct 2004 : Column 641
of sending a clear message to the Iraqi people that we will not desert them and will see things through to next year to help them in their elections?

Mr. Hoon: I suspect that there might be as much danger in answering the first part of my hon. Friend's question as there was in less friendly questions earlier today. It is important, however, that we consider the future of Iraq and make the decisions required to allow it to hold elections in January. That is what this is about.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West) (Con): My interest is in the register.

The Secretary of State rightly spoke about the robust rules of engagement. I am inclined to support the deployment, but I have a reservation. Perhaps he can reassure me by telling me that he shares my anger and indignation that a soldier carrying out his mission in Iraq can be cleared of wrongdoing by his commanding officer and yet be arraigned at the Old Bailey? That is an outrage.

Mr. Hoon: That is a matter for the courts. The hon. Gentleman knows better than I do that it is best left to the legal authorities. It is not a matter for Ministers to comment on or, indeed—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. May I tell the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) that the Front Bench has had its turn, and he must be quiet?

Mr. Hoon: I was hoping that the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) would refer to his excellent work in co-ordinating our efforts with Italian forces, which was a valuable illustration of the importance of coalition activity. The House, and the Government in particular, are extremely grateful to him for the way in which he promoted good alliances with our coalition counterparts.

Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South) (Lab): I know that the Secretary of State said that no decision has been made about the request, but given his answer to the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Dr. Tonge), I was reminded of a line from a song in the musical "Oklahoma":

Can he tell the House of any occasion when a request from our American allies was turned down? If not, would he as Secretary of State place any limits on the deployment of British troops in out-of-area activities at the request of the Bush Administration?

Mr. Hoon: "Oklahoma" was a bit before my time.

Mr. Skinner : The actress's name was Gloria Grahame—an American.

Mr. Hoon: I am getting help with the participants; but I do not accept the assertion of my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South (Alan Simpson). It is important to concentrate on the operational nature of the deployment and recognise that it is in the interests of the Iraqi people.

Hugh Robertson (Faversham and Mid-Kent) (Con): Both the report by the Iraq survey group and the initial
18 Oct 2004 : Column 642
report by the Volcker inquiry highlighted the extent of corruption at the United Nations during the oil-for-food programme and its effect on the insurgency in Iraq. Given that Saddam Hussein and his entourage personally benefited to the tune of $10 billion, what effect is that having on the current insurgency, particularly in the Sunni areas, where our forces may be deployed?

Mr. Hoon: The hon. Gentleman raises an extremely important issue. There is no doubt that some people who are continuing to fight are fighting for the restoration not of Saddam's regime in particular, but of the privileges and money that they enjoyed as a result of the corruption that existed during his time in office. There is no doubt that many of those people benefited significantly and are using some of those funds to buy weapons to kill not only members of the coalition, but Iraqis.

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): I salute the work of our troops in Iraq, but urge my right hon. Friend to treat the request with great circumspection for fear of putting our troops in greater danger. Can he explain how it is that, as he has repeatedly said, he is considering a request from the United States of America, when in theory earlier this year sovereignty was transferred in Iraq? Has there been any request from the Iraqi Government? Will he explain the command structure in that relationship?

Mr. Hoon: The request is from a fellow member of the multi-national force. We are there at the behest, and with the consent of, the Iraqi Interim Government and, as I indicated earlier, should there be any operations against Falluja, or any other place in Iraq, they will take place only with the agreement of the Interim Government.

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh) (Con): The whole House will be conscious that the Secretary of State bears a heavy responsibility. Discharging that responsibility a little while ago, he said in response to a question that we would have failed to support an ally if we were to turn down this request. How can he have come to so concrete a conclusion if, as he has claimed repeatedly this afternoon, no decision has yet been taken?

Mr. Hoon: It is clear that the reason why we would want to accede to this request—if that is what we decide to do—would be because we would be in support of an ally. We cannot go into a coalition and then simply cross our fingers and say that there are certain circumstances under which we will not participate. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is not suggesting that for a moment. Were we to refuse that request, it would go to the heart of our relationship not only with the United States, but with other members of that alliance.

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend say a little about the logistical prerequisites of any such further deployment, with particular reference to the greater need for armoured vehicles?

Mr. Hoon: Those are matters that will be the subject of the reconnaissance that is about to take place and they will be taken into account by the chiefs of staff in their advice to Ministers.
18 Oct 2004 : Column 643

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): Does the Secretary of State accept that, from conflicts as diverse as Malaya in the 1950s to the Balkans in the 1990s, the British Army has both developed and implemented peacekeeping strategies that are superior to those of any other army in the world? Does he recall the dispute between the British and the Americans over the occupation of Pristina airport and the way in which that was resolved? Does he therefore think that he should pay more attention to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) that, if the British are deployed in this way, it is vital that they have a key input into the counter-insurgency strategy that is followed?

Mr. Hoon: As I made clear, the request is for British forces to participate in operations in a discrete and particular area of Iraq and therefore their position will be no different from the one that they are in today in conducting operations in the south of Iraq.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): I join the Secretary of State in paying tribute not just to the troops, but to the excellent work of those in the RAF, many of whom will have come from the Vale of York. If he accedes to the request, will he not be moving further away from his target of having 24 months between operational tours? Does that not support the thesis of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) that we need more battalions rather than fewer?

Mr. Hoon: Unfortunately not, because the very people who have the least opportunity of a 24-month rotation are those who have precisely the kinds of skills that we are intending to reinforce by redeploying the four battalions from Northern Ireland into those areas of shortage. It is no good the hon. Lady shaking her head. If she really is concerned about those who have been most stretched in recent times, she needs to look at the logistics and at engineers, intelligence personnel and signallers, who are precisely the kind of people who support operations. If she looks carefully at what I said, she will see that our intention is to use the strength released from those four battalions to help those shortage areas.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): This is clearly no time for narrow partisanship or opportunistic repositioning. Speaking as one of those who voted for the war, would back exactly the same text again, believe that the Prime Minister has been honest on this subject throughout and think that the coalition forces should finish the job that they have quite properly started, may I put it to the Secretary of State that, subject to the caveats that he has very properly highlighted this afternoon, in seeking to reinforce United States efforts to establish security in Iraq and fight terrorism there, he is entitled to receive the strong, principled and consistent support of people in all parties for doing what is right, however inconvenient it may be?

Mr. Hoon: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I assume that he was not accusing the Government of opportunistic repositioning. He seemed to be directing his gaze towards his own Front Bench.