Page last updated at 18:26 GMT, Monday, 25 January 2010

Ex-defence secretary speaks of strain of Iraq losses

Des Browne: "I found it difficult personally to deal with the losses of our people"

Former defence secretary Des Browne has spoken of the personal strain he felt when members of the British armed forces were killed in Iraq.

It was "difficult to come to terms" with fatalities as he had no military background, he told the Iraq inquiry.

He suggested service families were unhappy with him simultaneously holding the job of Scottish secretary.

His successor John Hutton said a lack of helicopters had "undoubtedly been a factor" in the UK's mission in Iraq.

"I don't think there is any point pretending otherwise," he said.

"The military would have liked more helicopters and the politicians would have liked to make more available."

Mr Hutton acknowledged the death toll among Iraqi civilians since the March 2003 invasion had been "disastrous" but he defended the war as it had transformed Iraq from a "pariah" state to a democracy that was a full member of the international community.

Troop welfare

Mr Browne and Mr Hutton served successively as defence secretaries between May 2006 and June 2009.

Geoff Hoon, defence secretary in the run-up to and during the war, has already given evidence.

Peter Biles
Peter Biles, BBC World Affairs correspondent:
Des Browne and John Hutton both served as defence secretary during a period when there was dual pressure on the military. It was natural that they would be questioned about the impact of Afghanistan on Iraq, especially in the wake of Geoff Hoon's evidence.

Last week, Mr Hoon told the inquiry that he had not agreed with Tony Blair's announcement in 2004 that led to a troop commitment to Afghanistan, at a time when British forces were still deployed in southern Iraq in significant numbers.

Today, Mr Browne and Mr Hutton both addressed the issue of over-stretch. They painted a picture of finite resources meaning that two simultaneous operations, such as Iraq and Afghanistan, could not be sustained indefinitely.

On a lighter note, Mr Browne said at that one stage Britain had successfully sourced "six Merlin helicopters" in Iraq. The hapless stenographer in the hearing room typed this as "six million helicopters".

Mr Browne said his concerns about troops' welfare meant he chose to devote a lot of his time to helping the families of personnel.

But he said "perceptions" of his efforts were hampered after Gordon Brown asked him to combine the role as defence secretary with that of secretary of state for Scotland from July 2007 onwards - a dual role which was heavily criticised at the time by the opposition.

Although Mr Browne said he did not have any less time to devote to the defence brief - because he had an "able" Scottish deputy to rely upon and many Scottish issues were devolved - he said public reaction to the arrangement was "disadvantageous".

"I don't think it would be wise for any future prime minister to recreate that strategy," he said.

"Very few members of the military raised this issue," he said. "Members of [service] families did."

He said his lack of military experience meant he struggled to deal with the impact of casualties such as when, within 24 hours of taking the job, five British soldiers were killed when their Lynx helicopter was shot down.

During his time in office, the UK had 7,000 troops in Iraq and sustained mounting casualties as violence increased.

"I found it very difficult to come to terms with the deaths of our people in an operational environment," he said. "I found it difficult to personally deal with the losses of our people."


Mr Browne acknowledged there were "concerns" within the military about the number of helicopters available to British troops in Iraq.

However, he denied there was a "gap" that had to be filled and said his efforts to source more helicopters - either from the UK's coalition partners or by refitting models previously used by the special forces for use by combat troops - were largely successful.

Tuesday: Ex-Foreign Office legal advisers Sir Michael Wood and Elizabeth Wilmshurst, the latter who resigned in protest at the invasion's legality, will appear
Wednesday: Former attorney general Lord Goldsmith, who advised ministers the invasion was lawful, will give evidence
Friday: Former prime minister Tony Blair will make his long-awaited appearance

Asked the same question, Mr Hutton said the UK had made "steady progress" in providing more helicopters and making them more reliable.

But he acknowledged this had not been easy: "This is not a capability you can simply buy and the next day you have got it."

Mr Browne said the decision to deploy thousands of British troops to southern Afghanistan in 2006 did have an "impact" on the operation in Iraq, as it "increased pressure on a finite level of resources".

Mr Hoon told the inquiry last week he opposed the decision to commit UK troops to the Nato mission in Helmand province, saying he felt it was not sustainable to mount two major operations at the same time.

Mr Browne said he had never come under any pressure from the military or No 10 to divert troops or equipment from Iraq to Afghanistan.

However, he told the inquiry that, as things stood, he did not believe the UK had "sufficient resources" to take part in two major deployments simultaneously over a sustained period and it would require "political will" to make sure this was possible.

Ex-prime minister Tony Blair is to give evidence on Friday while ex-attorney general Lord Goldsmith will also appear this week.

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