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Blair: Statement on Iraq and the Middle East

Statement on Iraq and the Middle East

21 February 2007

Bringing about "enduring change" in the Middle East is vital to our security, Tony Blair has told MPs.

Read the statement in full

With permission, Mr Speaker, I shall make a Statement, on recent developments in Iraq and across the Middle East.

Saddam was removed from power in May 2003. In June of 2004 the UNSC passed a resolution setting out the support of the international community for the incoming Interim Government of Iraq, for a political process leading to full democratic elections overseen by the UN itself and for Iraq's reconstruction and development after decades of oppression and impoverishment under Saddam's dictatorship.

In January 2005 the first elections were held for a Transitional National Assembly. 7 million people voted. A new constitution was agreed. In December 2005 full Parliamentary elections were held. 12 million Iraqis voted and in May 2006 the first fully elected Government of Iraq was formed. It was expressly non-sectarian, including all the main elements of Iraqi society - Shia, Sunni and Kurdish. Throughout there has been full UN backing for the political process and now for the Government of Prime Minister Maliki.

Successive UN Resolutions have given explicit approval for the presence of the MNF.

The political process has thus continued through these years. For example, as we speak, the Iraqi Parliament is awaiting the report on amending the Constitution from its Constitutional Review Committee; a draft law on de-Baathification, relaxing some of the restrictions on former Baath Party members; and the new hydrocarbon legislation which will attempt to spread fairly and evenly the proceeds of Iraq's considerable oil wealth.

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However, the political process, the reconstruction, the reconciliation, everything that the UN have set out as the will of the international community and Iraqis have voted for, has been thwarted or put at risk by the violence and terrorism that has beset the country and its people. From the appalling terrorist outrage in August 2003 that killed the UN Special Representative and many of his colleagues to this day, Iraq and Baghdad in particular has been subject to a sickening level of carnage, some aimed at the MNF but much aimed deliberately to provoke a sectarian struggle between Sunni and Shia. The bombing of the shrine at Samarra in February 2006 was designed precisely to provoke Shia death squads to retaliate against Sunni.

The violence comes from different sources. Some of it originates with former Saddamists; some with Sunnis who are worried that they will be excluded from the political future of Iraq. Much of the so-called "spectacular" suicide bombings are the work of Al Qaida whose grisly presence in Iraq since 2002 has been part of their wider battle with the forces of progress across the world. Now Shia militant groups like Jaish-al Mahdi - JAM - are responsible for the abduction and execution of innocent Sunni.

These groups have different aims, different ideologies but one common purpose: to prevent Iraq's democracy from working.

Throughout all the wretched and inexcusable bloodshed, one hope remains. Talk to anyone in Iraq of whatever denomination, whether Iraqi, or part of the MNF, whether civilian or military, and they all say the same thing: the majority of Iraqis do not want it to be like this. They voted despite the violence. They know its purpose and its effect and they hate both.

There can be legitimate debate about what was right and what was wrong in respect of the original decision to remove Saddam. There can be no debate about the rights and wrongs of what is happening in Iraq today. The desire for democracy is good. The attempt to destroy it through terrorism is evil. Unfortunately that is not the question. The question is: not should we, but can we defeat this evil; do we have a plan to succeed?

Since the outset our plan, agreed by Iraq and the UN, has been to build up Iraqi capability in order to let them take control of their own destiny. As they would step up, we would, increasingly, step back. For three years therefore we have been working to create, train and equip Iraqi Security Forces capable of taking on the security of the country themselves. In normal circumstances, the progress would be considered remarkable. There are now 10 divisions of the Iraqi Army, over 130,000 soldiers, able in significant parts of the country to provide order. There are 135,000 in the Iraqi Police Service. There the progress has been more constrained and is frequently hampered by corruption and sectarianism but nonetheless, again, in normal circumstances it would be considered a remarkable effort. The plan of General Petraeus - then an Army Commander in Iraq, now the Head of the Coalition forces there - which was conceived in 2004 has in its essential respects been put in place.

But these are not normal circumstances. The Iraqi Forces have often proved valiant. But the various forces against them have also re-doubled their efforts. In particular in and around Baghdad where 80-90 per cent of the violence is centred, they have engaged in a systematic attempt to bring the city to chaos. It is the capital of Iraq. Its strategic importance is fundamental. There has been an orgy of terrorism unleashed upon it in order to crush any possibility of it functioning.

It doesn't much matter if elsewhere in Iraq - not least in Basra - change is happening. If Baghdad cannot be secured, the future of the country is in peril. The enemies of Iraq understand that. We understand it.

So, last year, in concert with our Allies and the Iraqi Government, a new plan was formulated, and promulgated by President Bush in January of this year. The purpose is unchanged. There can be only one purpose in Iraq: to support the Government and people of the country to attain the necessary capability to run their own affairs as a sovereign, independent state.

But the means of achieving the purpose were adjusted to meet the changing nature of the threat. The Baker/Hamilton report, to which I pay tribute, also informed the strategy.

There are three elements to the plan. First, there is the Baghdad Security Initiative, drawn up by Prime Minister Maliki and currently underway. It aims, like the Operation in Basra has done, to take the city, district by district, drive out the extremists, put the legitimate Iraqi Forces in charge and then make it fit for development, with a special fund in place able to deliver rapid improvement.

It began last Tuesday. It is far too early to tell its results, though early indications are more promising than what was tried, unsuccessfully, some months back. In particular, there is no doubt of its welcome amongst ordinary people in Baghdad.

The second part of the plan is a massive effort to gear up the capability of the Iraqi Forces, to plug any gaps in command, logistics, training and equipment.

Thirdly, there is a new and far more focussed effort on reconciliation, reconstruction and development. There are now talks between Iraqi officials and both Sunni and Shia elements that have been engaged in fighting. It is again too early to draw conclusions, but this is being given a wholly different priority within the Iraqi Government and by the MNF.

In addition, there have been changes made by Prime Minister Maliki - to whose leadership I pay tribute - to the way economic development and reconstruction monies are administered within the Iraqi Government - with DPM Barham Saleh given specific responsibility. This will allow the disbursement of funds to be made and will allow, in Baghdad and elsewhere, development and reconstruction to follow closely on the heels of improved security.

The objective of all of this is to show the terrorists they cannot win; to show those that can be reconciled that they have a place in the new Iraq; and the Iraqi people that however long it takes, the legitimate Iraqi Government which they elected and which the international community supports, will prevail.

The aim of the additional US forces announced by President Bush is precisely to demonstrate that determination. If the Plan succeeds, then, of course, the requirement for the MNF reduces including in Baghdad. It is important to show the Iraqi people that we do not desire our Forces to remain any longer than they are needed; but whilst they are needed, we will be at their side.

In this context, what is happening in Basra is of huge importance. Over the past months, we have been conducting an operation in Basra, with the 10th Division of the Iraqi Army, to reach the stage where Basra can be secured by the Iraqis themselves.

The situation in Basra is very different from Baghdad. There is no Sunni insurgency. There is no Al Qaida base. There is little Shia on Sunni violence. The bulk of the attacks are on the MNF. It has never presented anything like the challenge of Baghdad. That said, British soldiers are under regular and often intense fire from extremist groups, notably elements of JAM. I would like, as I have often done in this House, to pay my profound respects to the British Armed Forces. Whatever views people have about Iraq, our Forces are dedicated, professional, committed and brave beyond belief. This country can be immensely proud of them. We send again our whole-hearted sympathy to the families of those that have fallen, and the injured and their families also.

As a result of this operation, which is now complete the Iraqi Forces now have the primary role for security in most parts of the city. It is still a difficult and sometimes dangerous place. But, many extremists have been arrested or left the city. The reported levels of murder and kidnapping are significantly down. Surveys of Basrawis, after the Operations had been conducted, show a much greater sense of security. There is reconstruction now happening in schools and health centres, around 300 projects altogether.

A few days ago, DPM Barham Saleh organised the Basra Development Forum. He announced a $200 million programme of development in infrastructure and public services. In addition, the international community - with Britain in the lead - has developed projects to increase power supply, put in place proper sewage systems, and increased the supply of drinking water to thousands of homes. The plan to develop Basra port will be published later this year. The problems remain formidable, not least in providing work where for decades, 50 per cent or more of the city has been unemployed.

In an extraordinary development, the Marsh Arabs, driven from one of the world's foremost ecological sites by Saddam, have been able to re-settle there.

What all of this means is not that Basra is how we want it to be. But it does mean that the next chapter in Basra's history can be written by Iraqis.

I have discussed this with Prime Minister Maliki and our proposals have his full support and indeed represent his wishes.

Already we have handed over prime responsibility for security to the Iraqi authorities in Al Muthanna and Dhi Qar. Now in Basra, over the coming months, we will transfer more of the responsibility directly to Iraqis. None of this will mean a diminution in our combat capability. The actual reduction in Forces will be from the present 7,100 - itself down from over 9,000 two years ago and 40,000 at the time of the conflict - to roughly 5,500. However, with the exception of Forces which will remain at Basra Palace the British Forces will be located at Basra Air Base and be in a support role. They will transfer Shaibah Logistics Base, the Old State Building and the Shaat Al'Arab Hotel to full Iraqi control.

The British Forces that remain in Iraq will have the following tasks

* training and support to Iraqi Forces
* securing the Iraq/Iran border
* securing supply routes

and, above all, the ability to conduct operations against extremist groups and be there in support of the Iraq Army when called upon.

Over time and depending naturally on progress and the capability of the ISF, we will be able to draw down further, possibly to below 5,000 once the Basra Palace site has been transferred to the Iraqis in late summer. We hope that Maysan Province can be transferred to full Iraqi control in the next few months and Basra in the second half of the year. The UK military presence will continue into 2008, for as long as we are wanted and have a job to do. Increasingly our role will be support and training, and our numbers will be able to reduce accordingly.

Throughout MND(South East), the UK depends on the steadfastness of our coalition partners - Denmark, Australia, Romania, the Czech Republic and Lithuania. I pay tribute to them. I welcome the continuing Australian role at Tallil in Dhi Qar province. We are keeping in close touch with our allies as the transition proceeds.

The speed at which this happens depends, of course, in part on what we do, what the Iraqi authorities themselves do; but also on the attitude of those we are, together, fighting. Their claim to be fighting for the liberation of their country is a palpable lie. They know perfectly well that if they stopped the terror, agreed to let the UN democratic process work and allowed the natural talent and wealth of the country to emerge, Iraq would prosper. We would be able to leave. It is precisely their intent to eliminate such a possibility.

In truth, this is part of a wider struggle taking place across the region. The Middle East is facing an epochal struggle between the forces of progress and the forces of reaction.

The same elements of extremism trying to submerge Iraq - or Afghanistan for that matter - are the same elements that across the region, stand in the way of a different and better future. None of this absolves us from responsibility. In fact, for too long, we believed that provided regimes were "on our side", what they did to their own people was their own business. We must never forget that Saddam inflicted one million casualties in the Iran-Iraq war and butchered hundreds of thousands of his citizens, including, by chemical weapons attack, wiping out whole villages of people.

We need now to recognise that the spread of greater freedom, democracy and justice to the region is the best guarantee of our future security as well as the region's prosperity. That is why peace between Israel and Palestine is not an issue inhabiting a different domain of policy. It is a crucial part of the whole piece. I shall meet President Abbas later today, talk to Prime Minister Olmert, and within the last 24 hours have had detailed discussions both with President Bush and Secretary Rice. I will once again emphasise the importance of basing the proposed NUG on the Principles of the Quartet. I will also stress our complete and total determination to use the new opportunity to create the chance for peace.

I have always been a supporter of the State of Israel. I will always remain so. But for the sake of Israel as well as for all we want to achieve in the Middle East, we need a proper, well functioning, independent and viable State of Palestine.

We should support all those across the region who are treading the path of progress - from the Government of Lebanon, whose Prime Minister courageously holds firm to democracy, to those countries and there are many, who are taking the first fledgling steps to a different and more democratic governance.

As for Iran and Syria, they should not be treated as if the same. There is evidence recently that Syria has realised the threat Al Qaida poses and is acting against it. But its intentions towards Iraq remain ambiguous and towards Lebanon hostile.

The statements emanating from Iran are contradictory, but as the words yesterday of the head of the IAEA indicate, their nuclear weapons ambitions appear to continue. But both countries - though very different - have a clear choice: work with the international community or defy it. They can support peace in Palestine, democracy in Lebanon, the elected Government of Iraq - in which case they will find us willing to respond; or they can undermine every chance of progress, uniting with the worst and most violent elements, in which case they will become increasingly isolated, politically and economically.

But what nobody should doubt is that whatever the debates about tactics, the strategy is clear: to bring about enduring change in the Middle East as an indispensable part of our own enduring security. The poisonous ideology that erupted after 9/11 has its roots there, and is still nurtured and supported there. It has chosen Iraq as the battleground. Defeating it is essential. Essential for Iraq.

But also, now, for us here in our own country. Self-evidently the challenge is enormous. It is the purpose of our enemies to make it so. But our purpose in the face of their threat, should be to stand up to them, to make it clear that however arduous the challenge the values that they represent will not win and the values we represent, will.


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