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14 Jan 2009 : Column 267

Mr. MacNeil: I am not exactly clear what the right hon. Lady is saying. Does she support internment?

Ann Clwyd: Oh dear. No.

I know that many Members take an interest in the situation of women in Iraq. In many parts of the country the situation of women is improving, but I know that things have been very bad for women there over the past five years. Women now have the opportunity to take part in the political life of the country. We ought to applaud the fact that 25 per cent. of members of the Council of Representatives—Iraq’s Parliament—are women.

Ms Dari Taylor: Better than ours.

Ann Clwyd: Indeed. We have attempted to link up with those women by video on several occasions. Colleagues in all parts of the House agreed to take part in video conferencing, but that has not happened yet—on the first occasion there was a sandstorm; on the second occasion there was an important vote in the Iraqi Parliament; on the third occasion there was a security issue; and on the last occasion the Iraqi Parliament suddenly went on holiday. We have not yet managed to organise that video conference, but we still hope to do so. The group of women MPs whom I meet in Iraq are varied. They come from all sides of Iraq and many are extremely impressive, but some are very new and need to be encouraged, which is one of the things that we can do here.

As hon. Members have said, provincial elections are due to take place in Iraq on 31 January. Again, the Iraqi Parliament is to be congratulated. Recently, it passed legislation ensuring that 25 per cent. of those elected in the local elections will be women. Furthermore, it has agreed that minority groups—Christians, Shabaks, Yezidis, Mandaeans and others—will be guaranteed representation, which I welcome.

Jo Swinson: I am enjoying the right hon. Lady’s contribution. I would certainly say that getting more women elected to this House is important, but does she agree that electing women is particularly important in countries recovering from conflict situations? As Security Council resolution 1325 points out, the role of women post-conflict can be vital in rebuilding a country, and it is important that our Government take their commitments and national action plan under that resolution very seriously.

Ann Clwyd: I absolutely agree. The hon. Lady agreed to take part in one of the video conferences that we had to cancel, and I hope that she will participate in a future one. It is important for those women to feel solidarity with women in this Parliament. They value the British particularly—I cannot emphasise enough how much the Iraqi people value British involvement. Our continued involvement is certainly important in rebuilding the country.

We should remember that for the first time in many generations, Iraqis enjoy basic rights—for example, freedom of speech, expression and association and the right to take part in democratic processes. I remember meeting the leader of Baghdad city council in 2003. I asked him how things had changed. He looked at me and said,
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“Madam, if I had met you two years ago, I would have been able to say to you only, ‘Hello’, ‘Long live Saddam Hussein’ and, ‘Goodbye’. Now I can say anything I want to you.”

About two years ago, I went to the marshes with an Iraqi Water Minister—it was the first visit to the devastated marshes by a new Iraqi Government Minister. The water ministry is responsible for re-flooding the marshes, which were drained by the previous regime. Life is beginning to return to the marshes, although there are not as many people as lived there previously—many of the people fled or were killed when Saddam Hussein attacked the Marsh Arabs. However, we met a representative group, and as we went round the villages, people ran out, hugged us and laughed and clapped. We sat down with the community leaders in a big building made of rushes, as all buildings on the marshes are. They started banging the floor and saying to the Minister, “We want better roads, education and better housing.” I sat there and thought that two years previously they could not have done that—if they had done so, they would not have been there today.

Freedom of expression is important, as we have seen in the Iraqi press, which we have played an important role in retraining. The Institute for War and Peace Reporting, based in this country, has done good work on retraining Iraqi journalists. Previously, they had to write reports from reports that had been given them and could not change anything. When we see them rethinking and challenging ideas that people have given them, it is impressive. I hope that we continue to support the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, which does excellent work in Afghanistan and many countries that I have visited where freedom of the press has not been part of the culture.

There are human rights issues and challenges facing Iraq today. When the Prime Minister addressed the House just before Christmas, he said that

He talked about our commitment to the economic development of Iraq and scholarships in the UK for Iraqi students, which is all very welcome.

A few weeks before Christmas, I went to the British Library, which had organised an event for the chief librarian of Iraq’s main library in Baghdad, Dr. Saad Eskander. Since the war, he has had a good relationship with the British Library. He gave us a slide show and a talk about how he had found Iraq’s library when he went there in 2003. The library was no more. All the documents and books had been burned, and there were just ashes on the floor. Then he showed us what he has done since, with the help of the British Library. He has been able to rebuild some of the collection through copies of books and documents that existed there. We listened to him talk about his enthusiasm for rebuilding the library in Iraq and how many young people he has brought in to work there, particularly a large number of women. He said that he would very much value continued British help. At the end of his speech, the audience of a couple of a hundred people—librarians and chief executives from all over the country—got to their feet and applauded him, because his story was such a poignant example of how to rebuild from the ashes. There are many other examples in Iraq of people who do similar things.

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A couple of months ago, I chaired a human rights forum on Iraq at the Foreign Office. Fifty people were there, and three Iraqi Ministers were among the participants. There were people from non-governmental organisations and trade union groups, officials and academics. The universal view at that meeting was that British involvement in building Iraqi civil society would be essential in future. We agreed that the group would meet regularly, every three months, and that working groups would focus on freedoms, the rule of law and the role of women. We will also involve NGOs from Iraq, which I had hoped would be able to take part in that first meeting, but the line broke down or there was a problem in Iraq, so they could not get the sound link. There are many NGOs working in Iraq, and it is very impressive to see them do so. The British Government have assisted NGOs in getting off the ground. There are people working with the disabled and with widows, and people working on corruption, which is a brave thing to do in any country, but particularly so in Iraq at this time. People are working on all aspects of life in civil society. When one spends a day or two with them, one feels that there is considerable optimism and determination among the Iraqi people.

Everybody agrees that women are a key part of rebuilding the country and establishing it more firmly as a representative democracy. We must continue to lobby the Iraqi Government, so that when the national elections take place at the end of the year, the 25 per cent. quota for women is still in place. The women MPs whom I know, who have built a strong caucus within the Council of Representatives, must be allowed to continue to speak out and shape the future of their country. The Speaker of the Iraqi Parliament has recently been forced to stand down. One of the things that he did prior to being asked to step down was verbally to attack women in Parliament for not having suffered enough. At that point, all the women stuck together and walked out of the Parliament. It is heartening to see such groupings forming.

The freedom of the press is crucial in Iraq. I receive a synopsis of the Iraqi press every day, and it is amazing to see the spread of opinion across the publications, daily and weekly, that exist in that country. I have been contacted on a number of occasions by concerned Iraqis, the National Union of Journalists and others about violence and threats made against journalists in all parts of Iraq. I have lobbied the Iraqi Government in Baghdad and the Kurdish regional government to treat all those cases with great seriousness. We must keep the pressure on to ensure that Iraqi journalists can work without fear. One of the obvious developments in a democracy is that the press are more or less free to write what they like, which is essential in Iraq. That is one way of ensuring that corruption does not take place.

I return to the example of my friend who runs the radio station. Some time last year, he was approached by an official from a department who was planning to advertise on his station. He was told, “We’ll pay you so-and-so, but you’ll have to give me back so-and-so.” My friend was very brave; he said, “Can you please sit there? I have to go and do something for a moment,” and he went upstairs to his studio and broadcast over the air what had happened in the room below. When he went back to the room, the man who had made the offer had disappeared, and an official appeared about a week
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later to apologise profusely that anyone should have done something like that. To have such brave people speaking out is the best way of combating corruption.

I have taken an interest in the rule of law in Iraq for a long time, and Indict has supplied 35 box-loads of evidence to the trials that continue in that country. The rule of law has developed a great deal since Saddam’s time, when the law was used as a brutal tool of repression. I hope that we will continue to press the Iraqis on the implementation of their amnesty law. It is a well-written law that should allow for the release of those who have been held without trial. We should also offer advice and training to the Iraqi authorities charged with running prisons. Right now the Iraqi Ministers of Justice, the Interior, Defence and Labour and Social Affairs run prisons. Many of those prisons are overcrowded, and the situation for the inmates is intolerable. I hope that we will continue to provide any support that the Iraqis ask for to improve conditions in their prisons. We have supplied specialists at various times to give advice on how to run prisons, including prison officers from this country. That support must accompany training for judges to allow those who are arrested to be brought to trial quickly and fairly.

I know that as our military support to Iraq draws down, our work to support the growth of civil society and a culture of human rights will continue. I am hopeful that in 10 years’ time, Iraq will be a country where all of us, if we want to, can go on holiday in safety and that we will see a much-strengthened Iraqi democracy to which we have done much to contribute.

3.59 pm

Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire) (Con): I never thought in 1984, when I stood for Parliament against the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd), that it would give me such pleasure to follow a speech of hers on a subject such as this. I found it extremely moving. The optimism that we are now expressing in relation to Iraq may well mean that her role as special envoy on human rights is no longer needed, and there could be no greater tribute to her than that.

While I am on a Welsh theme, I shall say how much I enjoyed the speech of the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Dr. Howells). As the right hon. Lady said, he has clearly been released from his chains. He relaxed into his speech in a way that I think the entire House found enormously enjoyable.

Whatever the controversy over the origins of the war in Iraq, over such things as dodgy dossiers and 45 minutes—frankly, I found neither of those nearly as important as the media have since made them out to be—and over the planning for the aftermath of the war, which was much more important, the fact remains that our armed forces went in with our allies the United States, the Danes, the Australians and many others. They went into Iraq and made great sacrifices. They were doing it for us, for this country, but also for the good of the region, Iraq and the world. The result, as we now see, has given rise to the hope that we have discussed throughout the debate.

The Defence Committee has visited Iraq regularly. Our analysis of what happened between 2003 and 2007 was that things were getting steadily worse. When we visited in 2007, for example, we found that there were
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rockets and bombs where we were every couple of hours or so. We were meant to have dinner with the President of Iraq, but the place where we were to have it was destroyed half an hour before we got there. Luckily the dinner was not, and it was sent round to the British embassy with the usual Iraqi hospitality that we have come to expect.

We found also that when we were in convoys in 2007, there was such a threat from the local population that everybody was forced off the road as our convoy went past, and guns were trained on them because of the risk of suicide bombings. We found that we were not allowed into the centre of Basra because we were considered too high-value a target.

By contrast, last year we were there for five days and there was not a single rocket or mortar attack. Things were so busy that only the vice-Chairman of the Committee and I were able to go into Basra, but we did so in a convoy that, far from forcing everybody off the road, got stuck in a traffic jam. Nobody seemed the least bit bothered about it. Not only were there no rocket or mortar attacks, but we heard afterwards that British troops who went into the centre of Basra in military uniform were not allowed to pay for anything because of the popularity of the British, to which the right hon. Lady referred. I hope that we can recognise the value of what the British have done in Basra and elsewhere in Iraq to the same extent that the people of Basra do. We should not constantly denigrate what we as a country have done.

Operation Charge of the Knights transformed the situation in Basra. My understanding of what happened is that there was a general misunderstanding—at the British level and the Baghdad, Iraqi Government level—about the level of militia control of Basra. Prime Minister al-Maliki decided to send in the 14th division. The decision nearly foundered and failed, and reserves had to be sent in. Prime Minister al-Maliki’s decision was a surprise to the United Kingdom and the United States. The time scale was brought forward in a way that was perceived as unwise because of the risk of failure, which British and US military advisers identified.

Nevertheless, Prime Minister al-Maliki’s decision was brave. He was determined to take back his country from the grip of the militias. He recognised the importance of taking back Basra—the country’s economic heart. When the exercise nearly failed because of the militias’ grip, other Iraqi reserve forces came in, with United States mentors. A major battle for Basra took place and it was successful.

We should pay great tribute to the Iraqi troops for their achievements, the British troops for the training that they gave the Iraqi troops and the American mentors, who managed to establish in the eyes of General Mohan that American troops could be welcomed on the streets of Basra. That also transformed the standing of British troops in Basra.

As I understand it, the Basra police were involved in the battle for Basra as follows: a third fought on the side of the Iraqi army; a third stayed at home, and a third fought on the side of the militias. The Iraqi army took on those who fought for the militias and defeated them. That was a crucial defeat. We contributed a great deal with a small police mission from the United Kingdom,
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which did good work, to training the police. However, it is essential, if we are considering our future strategic relationship with Iraq, to ensure, through training, that the Basra police do not revert to the corruption and militia control that previously existed. It is therefore essential that the size of the UK police mission and its formulation is good enough and strong enough to ensure that the police in Basra remain in the supportive state that they have now reached.

When we last visited Basra in June, we found that people spoke about the economy much more than security. That was a great step forward. Despite the traffic jams, which are a good economic sign, we noticed that there was high unemployment in Basra. Despite the security achievements, high unemployment had become the greatest risk.

Iraq is potentially one of the richest countries in the world. The oil infrastructure is in serious need of renewal and expansion to exploit those riches. That is not a criticism of Iraq, except in that it is a criticism of Saddam Hussein, but the situation represents a major opportunity for British companies. As the hon. Member for Pontypridd said, we need the Shells and the BPs to go in there and exploit those resources and renew that infrastructure. We have a combination of experience that could be absolutely optimal for getting that oil exploited by and for the Iraqis. We have oil expertise and a level of good will among the Basrawi population that is second to none. That good will needs to be built on.

I was therefore particularly worried by the strong point that the shadow Secretary of State for Defence made about the low importance that appears to be given to the development of British-Iraqi business links by the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. We must address that, because it is essential that Government agencies pull out all the stops to help the links between Britain and Iraq to grow, particularly in the oil sector, if it is true that the Ministry of Defence and DFID are thinking of pooling resources to get a representative. One representative is not enough. We need far stronger representation in Iraq in order to help the Iraqis build their economy and to help British companies, too, to benefit from that.

I want to turn, penultimately, to naval training, because, still on the issue of oil, the two oil platforms, one of which we visited in June last year, produce 90 per cent. of Iraqi income. They are terribly vulnerable and are protected by an Iraqi navy that is mentored and trained by the Royal Navy. The importance, therefore, of the work of the Royal Navy is obvious. The Royal Navy is involved in a huge task that is essential to the economic viability of the whole of Iraq. However, I am not entirely sure that the Secretary of State’s comments gave quite enough prominence to that importance.

I hope that the naval training that the Royal Navy carries out in Iraq will recognise that Iraq intends either to double or to treble the size of its navy in one year. That is rather a tall order. The Iraqi navy will still be a navy of small size, but it is important that we have a mission that is large enough, strong enough and of a high enough quality to be able to ensure that that transition works and works well.

I would be grateful if either the Minister in his reply or somebody in a letter could tell me whether the order for ships that was originally made from Malaysia by the
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Iraqis remains on foot or whether it has been cancelled. If it has been cancelled, as I fear it may have been, it would be good to know, from a naval point of view, what size the Iraqi navy will be, in view of the importance of the task that it will be undertaking.

In conclusion, I would like to read a couple of sentences from a briefing that the Iraqis themselves gave us for this debate. The fact that they are looking beyond the shores of their country to what is happening in other Parliaments is also a welcome development. What the Iraqis say is this:

Even as an aspiration, that is a fantastic thing to say, and it is a tribute to the Iraqis. It is also a tribute to those British men and women who have sacrificed so much and achieved so much in order to allow the Iraqis to have that aspiration.

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