» Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Prime Minister’s Statement on Iraq and the wider Middle East

Asked for further information on the Prime Minister’s statement to the House of Commons today on Iraq and the Middle East, the Prime Minister’s Official Spokesman (PMOS) said that he was not going to pre-empt the statement. He summarised it by saying that what the Prime Minister believed was that in line with the policy of Iraqiisation which we had announced as long ago as April 2004, we had now reached a stage where the next chapter of life in Basra could be written by the Iraqis themselves. What was important was that we took the steps towards that. It was a conditions-based approach, and that meant that while we would be announcing certain steps today, future steps would depend on conditions on the ground. That was consistent with the approach that we announced in April 2004.

Put that it had been reported today that we had "aspirations" to have all the troops withdrawn by May 2008, the PMOS said that that was just plain wrong. That was not in the speech, and it had not been part of anything that we had said. The approach was conditions-based, and we would be there as long as we were needed and wanted. We hoped to make progress and that we could continue down this road, but it depended on conditions on the ground to allow that, as well as the wishes of the Iraqi Government.

Put that Sky had recently repeated the "aspiration" line, and were the Sky sources the front page of the Guardian, the PMOS replied that it was entirely a matter for Sky to answer questions, and he invited the Sky correspondent in the room to do so! Sky had reported, and we had made representations to Sky to say that they were wrong – plus ca change.

Asked that as long as the US had troops in central Iraq, would there be a presence of UK troops as well there, the PMOS said that the Prime Minister’s statement would make it clear that this was primarily driven by our assessment of the position in Basra. The important thing was that we would still have combat readiness to support the Iraqi forces. The PMOS explained that what Operation SINBAD had allowed and developed was the process of the Iraqis taking control of their own destiny, and that meant that we were there in a support role. That was what the primary focus of it was.

Asked for further clarification about the support role and in particular, what its reference to the Americans might be, the PMOS replied that that was not part of the statement.

Asked if the Prime Minister would definitely announce plans to withdraw some British troops from Iraq, the PMOS said that again, he did want to observe the proper Parliamentary proprieties.

Put that the Australian Prime Minister today had suggested that there would be 5000 UK troops instead, the PMOS replied that the question was a neat attempt to get him to either offend the Australian Prime Minister, or to offend the Speaker of the House. The PMOS said he was going to do neither.

Asked to confirm the reports from the White House that there was a conversation between the Prime Minister and President Bush about the issue, the PMOS said that the Prime Minister would refer to it in his statement.

Asked if withdrawing UK troops meant bringing them back to Britain, the PMOS replied that people should wait for the statement.

Asked for more information about the wider Middle East parts of the statement, the PMOS said that the Prime Minister remained very intensively engaged in not only Iraq, but also Israel/Palestine. There had been the tri-lateral meeting over the past weekend involving President Abbas, Prime Minister Olmert and Dr. Rice. Therefore, the Prime Minister’s meeting today with President Abbas and the discussion with Prime Minister Olmert was particularly timely. The other aspects of it were about especially Iran, but also Syria.

Asked if the Prime Minister was satisfied that the US Government was happy about his decision to withdraw the troops, and also, was there any discussion about the timing with President Bush, the PMOS replied that the Prime Minister would outline his assessment of the US positions in his statement. The short answer to the first question was: yes.

Asked if the Prime Minister had discussed his statement with the Chancellor, the PMOS said that all members of the Government were fully aware of the announcement today.

Asked by Sky what the Prime Minister’s reaction would be to the inevitable charge that this was very convenient timing to announce the partial withdrawal of troops shortly before he left No10, the PMOS replied that with regards to the first part of the question, people should go back almost three years to our announcement of Iraqiisation. We had set out a strategy, and we were pursuing that strategy. There was a logic to it, and that logic was the process of giving more and more responsibility to the Iraqis as they developed the capability. Capability was not developed overnight, as it did take time, and that was why it had taken from 2004 to now.

Asked if this was "mission accomplished", the PMOS said that as the Prime Minister would make clear, this was on-going work because it was the process of handing over responsibility, whilst at the same time, ensuring that the democratically elected Government of Iraq could defend itself and assert its authority. An important part was also the process of reconstruction and of construction, given the way that Basra was treated by Saddam Hussein continued.

Asked how we would respond to the Tim Garden comment today that the situation in some places was still so unsecured that forces felt it was better to destroy a Hercules than get engineers in to fix it, the PMOS replied that the Prime Minister would deal with that in his statement. The PMOS said that the profile was adjusted according to the evolving situation on the ground. That situation was that, for example, in Operation SINBAD, the last phases were carried out by the Iraqi army, and it was not surprising that the Iraqis reacted much more positively to their own army. That was therefore what was important.

Asked if this was an acknowledgement to General Dannatt’s comments earlier in the year that our presence on the ground in certain circumstances did not improve the situation, the PMOS replied that if people looked at what the Prime Minister had said in response to General Dannatt, he agreed with his analysis. It depended on the local circumstances, as there could not be a broad-brush analysis, as there were certain instances in which the combat capability of our forces were needed. There were other circumstances where the Iraqi army was better suited to carry out operations. That was a sensible, professional analysis; it was not something, however that should be reduced to a simple caricature.

Asked if we still reserved the right to send more troops should the situation flare up again, the PMOS replied that that was a hypothetical situation. The Prime Minister’s statement would say that we retained significant combat capabilities on the ground in Basra.

Put if conditions-based meant it worked both ways, the PMOS replied that in terms of the capabilities that we would retain, it was precisely designed to deal with a situation if the conditions did not improve as much as we would hope.

Asked if some of the forces would be redistributed within the region, the PMOS said it was not long until the Prime Minister would make his statement, and people should wait for that.

Asked by Channel Four if we would describe this as "the beginning of the end", the PMOS replied that the journalist could write his own headlines!

Briefing took place at 9:00 | Search for related news

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