Paul Keetch: An exit strategy for Iraq

British troops should relocate to areas in the desert and outside the cities

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When I first visited Iraq nearly three years ago, I was welcomed into Basra by a rejoicing local population, thrilled that their brutal dictator, Saddam Hussein, had been overthrown, and optimistic that a new dawn for their country was on the horizon. For a moment, I thought I was wrong to oppose the war.

At that time, one senior British soldier said to me: "They love us here, but if we are here in six months' time, they'll start to kill us." And here we are, nearly three years down the line and with over a hundred British soldiers killed, this premonition has become a reality.

In 2003, the US and British Governments had committed more than 200,000 troops to beat Saddam Hussein's army; they did not plan for, or commit, enough forces to win that peace. These fatal errors can be seen today, when the security situation can hardly be considered stable. I witnessed this first hand on a fact-finding mission to the country recently with the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee.

On my previous visit to Basra, we could walk around with troops in berets and some security, but basically we were free to move around as we pleased. However, the situation was very different on my recent visit. We would not leave the base; indeed, when walking from building to building in the compound we had to put on full body-armour. The security situation has deteriorated, kidnappings of foreign citizens are the norm in many of the larger cities, and roadside bombings are frequent.

These security concerns limited our movements on the ground and in fact meant that all our transfers were undertaken by low-flying helicopters. These circumstances also confirmed that the security situation is fragile, and the withdrawal of British troops must be carefully considered and executed to ensure long-lasting peace.

We have a moral duty to leave Iraq in a stable condition. What should be considered is, where possible, British troops should relocate to areas in the desert and outside the cities. From this position, troops would have an "over the horizon presence", offering training and logistical support to the Iraqi armed forces. This is the best course of action to secure stability and remove the possibility of a cycle of dependency beginning to be felt by many Iraqis.

One senior British officer said to me: "We need to persuade the Iraqis their destiny is in their own hands." It seems inevitable that troops will be here for some years to come and, as my colleague Ming Campbell expressed, this would not be best served by stringent withdrawal deadlines.

By relocating out of the cities, British troops would no longer be targets for insurgents. Currently the presence of coalition forces within cities has been a target for insurgent groups. This was highlighted by the recent deaths of British soldiers and attacks on the British embassy two days before I arrived in Basra.

At present, thoughts of democracy are not a priority for many Iraqis. Democracy has shown positive results in Iraq, illustrated by the huge turnout for the recent elections. However, speaking to trainee army recruits just outside Baghdad, it is evident democracy has not drastically changed day to day life. This misconception by the Western governments and the media that the Iraqi people are obsessed with their fledgling political democracy is absurd - ordinary Iraqis aren't interested; they just want to get on with their ordinary lives.

They want a constant supply of electricity, not the 38 minutes of power that Tikrit experiences per day; they want to walk their children to school and to shop at local supermarkets, free from the threat of suicide bombers. As was announced recently, oil and electricity production is below pre-war levels. It is clear that the promised reconstruction of Iraq after the fall of Saddam has fallen short of many Iraqis' expectations.

The US has pumped in more than $30bn (£17.2bn) of its own money into reconstruction; however, for nearly every dollar they spend on this, more than half is spent on security contractors, wasted on inefficiencies, siphoned off to individuals or has simply disappeared. Only recently, a former US official admitted stealing $2m meant for the reconstruction of Iraq. But against this waste, the UN High Representative does not have access to a helicopter to get around Iraq!

The British Government says we should stay for as long as the Iraqi government wants us to, but that runs the risk of them dictating the pace of change. We should set that agenda; we could pull out now and run the risk of anarchy or we could be honest with the British people and accept we are in Iraq for the long run. Neither option is palatable, but those who started this course of action and failed to see the consequences must now face the responsibility.

The writer is the Liberal Democrat MP for Hereford and a member of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee

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