'A battleground for al-Qa'ida': MPs deliver damning verdict on Iraq war and aftermath

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Iraq risks becoming a "failed state" which could destabilise the Middle East, a powerful committee of MPs warned yesterday as they delivered a damning verdict on the war on international terrorism.

Members of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee said Iraq had become a "battleground for al-Qa'ida" as they lambasted the US-led coalition for allowing criminal gangs, Saddam loyalists and Islamic extremists to fill the post-war power vacuum.

They warned: "The alternative to a positive outcome in Iraq may be a failed state and regional instability."

MPs said the risk of terrorism may have been increased by the war to topple Saddam, with al-Qa'ida now known to be active in the former dictatorship. Donald Anderson, the Labour chairman of the committee, said: "It would be difficult to resist the argument that the threat has increased."

Their scathing 70,000-word report warned there were insufficient troops to provide security on the ground in Iraq, and said Britain's credibility in the country was being damaged by the failure to restore basic services to the Iraqi people.

MPs said there had been an "alarming increase" in attacks in the run-up to the handover of sovereignty, and warned that the power vacuum created by the break-up of the Iraqi army and the removal of former Baath party officials from government was "contributing to instability and insecurity".

They said: "The violence in Iraq stems from a number of sources, including members of the former regime, local Islamists, criminal gangs and al-Qa'ida. Iraq has become a battleground for al-Qa'ida with appalling consequences for the Iraqi people.

"We also conclude that the coalition's failure to bring law and order to parts of Iraq created a vacuum into which criminal elements and militias have stepped."

They criticised the international community for failing to contribute troops to bolster the American-led coalition.

The report also warned of the dangers of failing to improve the lot of ordinary Iraqis. It said: 'The provision of basic services in Iraq is not yet satisfactory, and the failure to meet Iraqi expectations, whether realistic or not, risks damaging the credibility of the United Kingdom in Iraq and Iraqi goodwill towards it."

They warned that there was "uncertainty over the degree of sovereignty to be vested in the new Iraqi government", and called on the US-led coalition to make it clear that the new Baghdad administration was sovereign "in reality as well as name".

In a highly critical verdict on the war on international terrorism, MPs also called on Britain to be more vocal about Russian policy towards Chechnya. They said Chechen rebels were linked to terrorist networks affiliated to al-Qa'ida, and warned that the rebel republic "has great importance as a rallying cry of Islamist insurgency throughout the Muslim world".

MPs said Moscow's support for Iran's nuclear programme could contribute to the spread of weapons of mass destruction. They said that Tehran's nuclear ambitions "continue to pose an intense challenge for the international community".

"The continued exertion of diplomatic pressure by the European troika, the US and the Russian Federation is essential to its resolution."

The report pointed to failures in communication in the Foreign Office over the infamous claim that Saddam could deploy weapons of mass destruction within 45 minutes, and the fact that Red Cross allegations of prisoner abuse by British troops were withheld from ministers and senior officials.

It said Foreign Office officials in Iraq attended a meeting with the International Committee of the Red Cross in February to be presented with the interim findings of their inquiry into detainee mistreatment. But ministers received copies only on 10 May, after reports about the findings emerged in the press.

The committee said: "We are very concerned that key information on intelligence and on alleged human rights violations by British personnel was withheld from senior Foreign Office officials and from ministers. The report praised the Government for supporting developments within the European Union to improve co-operation against terrorism. But it added: "Further significant steps are required for EU anti-terrorism action to be effective."

MPs also said there was "a clear need for reform throughout the Arab world".

Sir John Stanley, a Conservative member of the committee, criticised the Government over its response to threats to domestic security from chemical, biological and nuclear terrorism after 11 September. He said: "The British Government was singularly slow off the mark in building up our civil defence capabilities to deal with this new type of terrorist threat [It] has speeded up to a degree, but there are considerable grounds for anxiety."

THE MAIN POINTS

* "The alternative to a positive outcome in Iraq may be a failed state and regional instability. It is of utmost importance that current problems are resolved in favour of the forces of order."

*"Iraq has become a battleground for al-Qa'ida, with appaling consequences for the Iraqi people."

*"The insufficient number of troops in Iraq has contributed to the deterioration in security ... the failure of countries other than the US and UK to send significant numbers of troops has had serious and regrettable consequences."

*"The provision of basic services in Iraq is not satisfactory and the failure to meet Iraqi expectations, whether realistic or not, risks damaging the credibility of the United Kingdom in Iraq and Iraqi goodwill towards it."

*"We agree with President Karzai that the need for more resources for Isaf [the Nato led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan] is urgent. There is a real danger if these resources are not provided soon that Afghanistan, a fragile state in one of the most sensitive and volatile regions of the world, could implode, with terrible consequences."

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