Iraq is now al-Qa'ida's battleground, say MPs

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Al-Qa'ida has turned Iraq into a "battleground" with appalling consequences for the country's people, an influential Commons committee said today.

Al-Qa'ida has turned Iraq into a "battleground" with appalling consequences for the country's people, an influential Commons committee said today.

The Foreign Affairs Select Committee said the Coalition's failure to establish law and order in parts of the country has, in addition, created a "vacuum" into which criminals and militias have poured.

The MPs concluded that an insufficient number of foreign troops deployed to Iraq has contributed to the deterioration in security.

The comments, in a 400-page report published today, came just a day after a suicide car bomb north east of Baghdad killed 68 Iraqis and wounded 56 others in the deadliest terror strike since Iraq's interim government was installed.

In a report on the foreign policy aspects of the war against terrorism, the MPs said that the failure of countries other than the United States and United Kingdom to send significant numbers of armed personnel to Iraq has produced "serious and regrettable consequences".

The MPs said the UK Government should make a renewed effort to persuade other countries, including Islamic nations, to send troops.

Saudi Arabia has recently signalled that it might be prepared to take a lead in forming a Muslim security force for Iraq.

The committee further warned that Iraq's own army and police remain "a long way from being able to maintain security", and voiced serious concerns about the impact that continuing violence might have on the crucial elections planned for the start of next year.

The MPs cautioned: "We conclude that 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 'battle ground' for Al-Qa'ida, with appalling consequences for the Iraqi people ...

"We conclude that the alternative to a positive outcome in Iraq may be a failed state and regional instability.

"It is therefore of the utmost importance that current problems are resolved in favour of the forces of order and that those who seek to impede Iraq's transition to a free and democratic state are defeated."

In the report, the committee voiced concern that key information on intelligence and alleged human rights violations by British personnel was withheld from senior Foreign Office officials and ministers.

The report highlights the now notorious claim in the Government's September 2002 dossier that Saddam Hussein could deploy weapons of mass destruction within 45 minutes.

The report said: "The fact that the 45-minute intelligence claim related to battlefield weapons only was known to the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Defence shortly after publication of the dossier on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction in September 2002, but the Permanent Under-Secretary in the Foreign Office received the same information as late as June 2003, which is also when the Foreign Secretary was informed."

The report also focused on the controversy over the Red Cross report on the mistreatment of Iraqi detainees by coalition forces.

It noted that on February 26 this year, Foreign Office officials in Iraq attended a meeting with the International Committee of the Red Cross, at which they were formally presented with the interim findings of their inquiry into detainee mistreatment.

But ministers received copies only on May 10, after the emergence of media reports about its contents.

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.

"We recommend that in its response to this report the Foreign Office set out in detail what measures have been put in place to ensure that sensitive or important information is a. shared between Departments of State as appropriate b. always passed to an appropriate senior official level in the Foreign Office and c. always put to ministers if of policy or presentational significance."

In its report, the committee emphasised that the Coalition - and any other countries it can persuade to join the reconstruction effort - still have much work to do if Iraq was to be stabilised.

It focused in particular on the importance of getting on top of the security situation, and ensuring that the elections were a success.

The MPs said it was "disappointing" that so many countries had decided against committing forces to Iraq.

They said: "We conclude that it is highly desirable that elections proceed on schedule in order to foster Iraqi engagement and confidence in the political transition.

"However, we are concerned about the impact that the security situation could have on the validity of the election process.

"We recommend that the Government set out in its response to this report what plans it has, bilaterally with Iraq, and in conjunction with the US and United Nations, for providing security specifically for the elections.

"We further recommend that the Government encourage states that remain reluctant to commit troops to counter-insurgency operations in Iraq to send forces to assist with the elections."