Speeches recovered from the Conservative party’s online archive More…

Spelman: Government must accept blame for Iraq chaos

Speech in a House of Commons Westminster Hall debate

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Brent, North (Mr. Gardiner) for securing this debate. There has been a dearth of debate on Iraq, particularly in the post-conflict period. Since Baghdad fell, we have been short of opportunities to discuss the matter. I believe that we are all glad to welcome the Minister back to the Department for International Development, but I am sure that the frustration of Members is tangible to him. He should be exonerated from the comments and criticisms that I am about to make because he was not in the Department during the period in question, but I have to ask why the contingency planning was so poor.

As the former Secretary of State admitted in an interview on the Politics Show this past weekend,

'the preparations for post conflict were poor, and we've got the chaos and suffering that we've got now.'

She went on to say that the advice that she was giving about the need

'to keep order, to keep basic humanitarian services running'

was, to quote her, 'all being ignored'.

Those extremely serious allegations need further scrutiny. We cannot expect the Minister in a Westminster Hall debate of an hour and a half to give adequate answers to all the questions that have been asked, but there must be a thorough post mortem on why the contingency planning for the war was so poor.

There is no excuse for the terrible sense of déjà vu that we are experiencing. The lessons from Afghanistan, which was a recent conflict, were not applied. The record in Hansard shows that in November and December last year the Secretary of State was deluged with questions, in which she was asked what contingency plans her Department was making for a possible conflict in Iraq. The record bears me out that a one-word answer of 'None' was given. In January, when asked what discussions were taking place with the Governments of surrounding countries about dealing with the impact of the conflict, the answer that came back was, 'None.'

I do not exonerate the former Secretary of State (Clare Short) from blame. It is unfortunate that she is not here this morning, participating in the debate. While criticising the poor planning, she should also be willing to answer some criticisms about her role in the matter. I feel strongly about such issues. There is a clear need to prioritise quickly. As other hon. Members have said, the key lesson is security, security, security. That should have been learned from Afghanistan and should have come as no surprise. The lack of security hits the vulnerable in Iraq most severely. As the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock) said, it is women who suffer the most in the post-conflict scenario. It was recently reported that 13 schoolchildren were abducted from school in central Baghdad. It is not safe to get on with ordinary life. That is the reality of the situation, so we can hardly say that we have fulfilled our role in accordance with the Geneva convention as an occupying force restoring and maintaining law and order. That is a clear failing.

Children are the other vulnerable group. I was appalled to learn that there is no possibility of a child nutrition survey. I saw shepherd boys lying in hospital in Kuwait, who had been injured in the conflict. A 14-year-old weighed only four and a half stone as a result of chronic malnutrition. There is an urgent need to help the most vulnerable, but that cannot be done without security.

I join other hon. Members in chiding the Government on their contingency planning for phase 4. Clearly, it has failed. Phase 4 envisaged taking on board the Iraqi army and police, purging and vetting the Ba'athist elements and recycling them to help keep the peace in their own country. We were told that that did not work out because people removed their uniforms and went home with their automatic weaponry, which aggravated the security situation. Given the lessons learned in Afghanistan, will the Minister explain why there was no back-up plan for phase 4? The advantage about Iraq was that at least there was an army and a police force, and some possibility of recycling them.

What is the thinking about inter-ethnic tension? Kirkuk has become a no-go area for the non-governmental organisations to work in because the returning Kurds are at loggerheads with the Arabs. The problem is spreading to Mosul. The situation is entirely predictable. It could have been envisaged in any contingency plan that was made last year. How does the coalition intend to deal with a situation that is only likely to become worse? I flag that up now to try to prevent a disaster from happening.

After decades of distorted priorities under Saddam Hussein and the impact of sanctions, it is no surprise that the utilities are in such a bad state. It is a good deal worse than a sticking plaster job. The fact that there were no spares for the power stations and water supply plants has produced a chronic situation. It could all have been envisaged in the contingency planning. I have received calls from people who work in the utilities here and who want to help to restore the utilities there. Why were such matters not factored into contingency planning? Why were experts who were willing to help with the problem not lined up in advance? I reiterate that we need a proper post mortem into why the Government's contingency planning for Iraq was so weak.

What about the relationship with the United Nations? Resolution 1483 gives America and Britain legal cover to occupy and govern Iraq, but it has been said by the leaders of our countries that the UN will have a "vital" role to play. However, so far it seems to be very much the junior partner. The group whose role is most consistently eroded seems to be the Iraqi people. On 2 April, the Prime Minister said:

'Iraq should not be run either by the coalition or by the UN but should be run by the Iraqis.'

Is that still the case? Yesterday, the Prime Minister's envoy to Iraq, John Sawers, told The Times that the Iraqis are not ready for democracy and that the coalition would appoint a political committee of 25 to 30 Iraqis. What role do the Government expect the Iraqi people, and women in particular, to play in running their own country?

None of my remarks is intended to denigrate the hard work and accomplishments of our armed forces—we are all proud of what they have achieved in Iraq.

The information that I have received from recently returned aid workers is that the Iraqi people are, contrary to much of what we hear in the media, delighted to be rid of Saddam Hussein and glad to have British forces there trying to restore order amid the anarchy. Of course, they would like the current phase to end, and they would like to see a plan setting out the way forward.

However, that should not detract from the role that our armed forces played in liberating the country from the repression that it suffered for far too long. The coalition's victory over Saddam was swift and impressive, and our forces did Britain proud in their successful prosecution of the campaign. Our responsibility is to ensure that we do not ruin the peace.

Keyboard shortcuts

j previous speech k next speech