Opening the twice yearly session when the Prime Minister is questioned by senior MP’s, Sir George asked the Prime Minister about his policy in Iraq.
Exchange appears below.
Q3 Sir George Young: Prime Minister, we want to divide our session on Iraq into three sections: firstly, what are the lessons we can learn so far; secondly, where are we; and, thirdly, what happens next? On the first, the action against Iraq was portrayed as a crusade against tyranny and against terrorism and it was carried out in the name of the United Nations Resolutions. Are you not disappointed that more of the countries that might have wanted to be associated with that in the event did not take part either in the military action or in the nation-building thereafter?
Mr Blair: We would have liked a bigger coalition, but there were countries obviously that felt very strongly against the action in Iraq. On the other hand, there were some 30 countries that joined us.
Q4 Sir George Young: Of those who joined us, of course some are now pulling out. Ukraine, Portugal, Poland, the Netherlands and Hungary have said they are going to withdraw their troops while we are putting more in. There is no sign of Germany, France or Russia joining the multinational force and NATO is non-operational. Has there not been diplomatic failure in spite of the military triumph?
Mr Blair: No, I think that would be unfair because for a lot of those countries you just mentioned that are taking out their troops, they continue very strongly to support the presence of the multinational force there; it is just that they are bound by certain parliamentary votes to take their troops out after a certain period of time and in some cases after the elections and they only went in on that basis. In other words, it is not that they have changed their mind and are now withdrawing; they are withdrawing in accordance with a stipulated pre-condition. I think you may find that at the NATO meeting at the end of February we get an agreement on help for training the Iraqi security forces and it is for those other countries to speak, but I hope that that will see some of the countries, which have not been involved in either the conflict in Iraq or its aftermath, join that training exercise.
Q5 Sir George Young: You want to see a broader coalition. Can we go on to the preparations that were made before we went to war for nation-building. A former Labour Foreign Secretary said this: "The failure of George Bush and Tony Blair to plan wisely to ensure the maintenance of law and order in Iraq after the successful military invasion is a tragedy for which many people are still paying a high price". Fair comment?
Mr Blair: No, I am afraid I do not agree with that. You would expect me to say this, but I think that in truth the degree of the insurgency and, in particular, those people that came from outside of Iraq in there, outside terrorists, al-Zarqarwi most notably, I think that was something that was difficult to foresee and difficult to plan for. On the other hand, I think even if we had been able to foresee absolutely everything that happened, it was still going to be very tough and very difficult because you had got people who were absolutely determined to prevent democracy taking hold in Iraq. In the end in one sense removing Saddam was one part of the conflict and it then entered into a different phase with the necessity of defeating the insurgents/terrorists who are not that large in number, I do not think, and certainly do not have popular support, and the elections have demonstrated that very, very clearly indeed, but, on the other hand, are reasonably well financed, reasonably well armed and are prepared to kill any number of people.
Q6 Sir George Young: Can I just press you on that a bit more. Before we went to war, I actually asked you a question about the preparations for post-war nation-building and this is what you said on January 21 in this room: "If we come to changing the regime, if we come to removing Saddam as the only way of dealing with the issue of weapons of mass destruction, then I think it is extremely important we make the most detailed preparations and work within the international community as to what happens afterwards". Did that actually happen? Was there not actually more chaos than there need have been after the war was over?
Mr Blair: No, again I think there is a great deal of misunderstanding over what people thought at the time with the risks that we would have to face. The biggest risk, the thing that we spent most time focusing on, was the possibility of a humanitarian disaster as a result of the conflict. Indeed, there were a lot of stories coming out before the conflict took place and its immediate aftermath where people were saying that there were going to be large numbers of people displaced, you may have difficulty getting food to them, there may be a tremendous problem with refugees and so on. Essentially, we managed to plan and guard against that eventuality. We then had reconstruction plans that we basically rolled out. The thing that has been most difficult has been this terrorism/insurgency and the reason that has been difficult is that what these people have done, and it is astonishing almost in its wickedness actually because it is wicked because were they to stop doing it, Iraq could make progress very, very quickly, but what they have actually done is kill anybody or disrupt anything that might make the country better. Now, that is something, frankly, you can foresee and try to plan against, but if there are people carrying out these actions, the only thing you can do is to get after them as quickly as possible and to build up the intelligence about them and their activity, and that is what we have done.
Q7 Sir George Young: We may want to press you a little bit more on that later, but can I just ask a question about Fallujah. The assault on Fallujah dispersed the Sunni insurgents throughout the rest of Iraq and we now hear from the CIA that it is a recruiting ground for anti-Western terrorism. Was that managed as well as it might have been?
Mr Blair: Well, again there is a dilemma in relation to Fallujah and the advice very strongly from the Iraqi Government, even though there were people within the Iraqi Government who themselves were in two minds about this, but the dilemma was perfectly simple and it was this: that they were using Fallujah as a base of operations, they were effectively taking over and were running Fallujah as a city, and the local tribal leaders, incidentally, were wholly opposed to these insurgents and terrorists operating out of there, but could do nothing about it. The question is: did you leave them there with all the dangers of that or did you take action to remove them? Now, we were never under any illusions at all; removing them was going to be difficult and bloody, indeed it has been, but, on the other hand, we took the view, and I think, in retrospect, this judgment actually has been proved right not wrong, that it was absolutely necessary to show to the Iraqi people that there was going to be no no-go area for the Iraqi forces and the multinational force and their support. There is a very basic, simple thing here, George. What is happening is that you have got, as I say, probably not that many and probably without much support even locally, but they are well armed and they are well financed and they are prepared to kill anybody. Now, in those circumstances, the most important thing for Iraqis is to have the elections, to demonstrate to these people that the vast majority of Iraqis want to make progress and become a proper democracy, and, by a combination of the political process and military pressure, to weed them out and destroy them because that is the only thing that is going to allow us to make progress.
Sir George Young: On military pressure, perhaps I can now hand over to Bruce George to continue the theme of questioning.
Q8 Mr George: Prime Minister, however many insurgents there are, a combination of the largest army in the world and probably one of the very best armies in the world should maybe have had a greater impact on the insurgents. Now, is there a possibility that the coalition approach to the insurgency and perhaps counter-insurgency tactics have not been really up to the mark? I am thinking of the fairly poor co-ordination between the US military and the Iraqi police forces where the army do not appear to be in the loop, so I wonder whether there is time even at this stage to review the whole ethos of our presence for as long as it is going to be and the strategy and tactics we are using against the insurgents.
Mr Blair: That is a perfectly reasonable point. We do review constantly the tactics that we are employing. The problem is this: that the most effective way ultimately of dealing with the insurgents and terrorists is to build up the Iraqi capability itself. It is when the Iraqis are able to go into cities and towns and run the security themselves that the insurgents and terrorists have the least traction on the Iraqi population, so what we have to do is to try and build their capability. Now, we are doing that, but we are starting, and have started, pretty much from scratch. It is difficult. There was no proper police force of any nature or civil defence. The army, yes, there was an army, but there were all sorts of problems obviously to do with the former Ba'athists and so on connected with it, so what we are trying to do is we are trying to build that Iraqi capability. Now, to be fair, in the elections the Iraqi forces acquitted themselves pretty well, but at the moment they still need the multinational force there in support. I hope that over the next few weeks, as the picture emerges more clearly and we get a new Iraqi Government come into being, I hope we can then set out for people exactly what we then think is the way forward for the Iraqiisation of security, for outreach to some of, in particular, the Sunni areas where I think there are people who maybe have not participated in the elections, but who also have now seen the election process at work and may be prepared to work with others in Iraq for the future.