Howard Discusses Iraq Risk In Light Of Japanese Hostage Crisis

This is the transcript of a doorstop interview given by the Prime Minister, John Howard, at The Lodge, Canberra.

Transcript of interview with Prime Minister John Howard.

PRIME MINISTER:

I just wanted to start by saying how concerned we are and how much we feel for the three Japanese hostages in Iraq and hostages potentially of other countries. We can only begin to understand the anxiety of their families and I’ve sent a message of concern and support to the Japanese Prime Minister. The stance he’s taken though is absolutely correct, this is a deliberate tactic, it’s designed to break the will of nations, its designed to force nations to rethink their commitment in Iraq and it’s doubly important that that tactic not be allowed to succeed. And at the present time, any talk of withdrawal, any talk of weakening of resolve or commitment will only encourage a repetition and an extension of this kind of behaviour.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard, is there an elevated risk for Australian troops now in Iraq?

PRIME MINISTER:

There is certainly an elevated risk in relation to civilians. As to the troops themselves, I read an interview yesterday given by Colonel Salmon who’s the Commander of the Australian Forces. He seemed very confident, but having said that, there has always been risk and the situation as the Colonel said yesterday is a lot less stable then it was say two or three weeks ago. So obviously the situation now is more fraught than it was, but that doesn’t mean to say that the overall security situation for Australians has deteriorated. But people are at risk, but that has been the case for a very long time and it’s going to remain the case for sometime yet.

JOURNALIST:

Have any additional measures been taken, Prime Minister, to protect Australian military and civilians in Iraq?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, their security arrangements are already very tight, they’re very mature and well developed. Once again, drawing on what he had to say, the Australians have a good rappor with the locals. They’ve worked very hard on that. We have our own approach to those things that’s uniquely Australian and it does appear to have succeeded. But equally, I don’t want to pretend that the situation isn’t more fraught than it was, it clearly is. But also we have to keep a sense of proportion, we have to remember that it’s only in certain areas that the situation has deteriorated.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, given the situation is deteriorating – are you reassessing our commitment in terms of whether we may even commit more troops?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I’m certainly not reassessing in anyway the commitment that is already there and our position remains exactly as I have outlined and on numerous occasions over the past couple of weeks, we are not planning to send anymore forces, we haven’t been asked to send any more forces and I’ve dealt with that issue over the past few days and I really don’t have any other or different, or new, or adjusted way of expressing that position.

JOURNALIST:

In terms of civilians, Prime Minister, can we go back to this issue, are extra efforts being made to ensure that the risk is minimised to the extent it can. Steven Salmon seemed to suggest that he was aware there were Australians, for instance, oil workers but really from a defence forces point of view, didn’t know who or where they were?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, the contact is between the individual civilians and our diplomatic mission and I’m sure that in different ways things are being done. But if you have people doing certain tasks, unless they stop doing those tasks then there will continue to be a certain element of risk. I can’t guarantee that there won’t be. But equally we have an assigned number of tasks and civilians have committed themselves to those tasks and in the end they will make certain judgements themselves.

JOURNALIST:

Do you know how many there are there, Prime Minister, Australian civilians and what would your advice to them be?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, my advice to them would be very much to keep in touch with the Australian mission and in turn, I know, the Australian mission is keeping in very regular contact with the defence people.

JOURNALIST:

How will you respond to a hostage situation involving Australians?

PRIME MINISTER:

That is hypothetical and I simply, on a serious matter like that I’m not going to get into a hypothetical situation.

JOURNALIST:

Is there any evidence that the Sunnis and the Shiites are joining forces and if there is does that complicate our exit strategy?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, there is reporting that in certain parts there is some evidence. I don’t think it can be put anymore strongly then that. As far as the future is concerned, I’m not talking in terms of a particular exit strategy. I’m talking in the near and medium term to us completing the tasks that we’ve been assigned to do. For example, the air traffic controllers, we have a certain task and that was laid out some months ago. In relation to the training of the Iraqi army and the Iraqi police, we have a certain task, that’s been laid out and we’ll continue to do those things and I continue to be very strongly of the view that talk of pulling out, talk of exit strategies at the present time only serves the purpose of those who would destabilise and undermine the coalition effort in Iraq. And especially, in the light of the difficulties of the past two or three weeks, it is the worst time imaginable for that kind of discussion to be taking place.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard, Jack Straw is quoted as saying that the situation in Iraq is far worse than he could have imagined and that the vast majority of Iraqis are against the occupation – what’s your view of that?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I haven’t heard the second part of what you say he said. I certainly heard the first part and certainly, the situation has deteriorated. But the last assessment of Iraqi public opinion I saw and it was pretty authoritative was that the Iraqis believe that they were better off now than what they were a year ago. Clearly, any country aspires to govern itself and that is the policy of the Americans, it’s the policy of the majority of the Iraqi people and those who are most standing in the way of the realisation of the Iraqis governing themselves are in fact the people against whom the Coalition are taking stronger military action. In other words, the insurgents, the fedaheen and all of those who have been responsible for a numerous atrocities in recent weeks and for these spate of uprisings in different parts of Iraq.

JOURNALIST:

Have you spoken with President Bush?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, I haven’t.

JOURNALIST:

Are you expecting a phone call?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, I don’t see any particular need to because our position and their position is clear and well set. We have a commitment. It’s a modest commitment compared with the commitment of the United States and Britain, but it’s an important commitment. Not only is it doing very valuable work and that’s important in its own right. But the fact that we are there and we’re staying firm in the face of these difficulties is very important. When you have a friendship with a country or with indeed anybody else, it’s in times of adversity that the value of that friendship is most keenly felt and it’s in times of adversity and challenge that that friendship is tested and that is certainly the view that I take and I think this is the worse possible time in terms of our friendship with the American people to be talking about withdrawing and to be equivocating and temporising about what our commitment is.

JOURNALIST:

Do you still have confidence in June 30 as a realistic handover date?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I’ve received no advice suggesting that it’s not. Obviously, I’m following the events of the past few days with very keen interest and we’ll just have to wait and see how that unfolds. There’s no doubt in my mind that those responsible for these uprisings are inspired by the belief that if they can cause a maximum mayhem and postpone that transition date they will have won a great victory. I mean, their aim is to deny the Iraqi people a democratic future – let’s be in no doubt about. They want Iraq to fail. They want Iraq to descend into chaos and bloodshed and we should do everything we can within our capacity and being realistic about what we can do to prevent that occurring and that is why I feel so very strongly that any talk of withdrawal at the present time is quite disastrous.

JOURNALIST:

A member of the Iraqi Governing Council, Prime Minister, has criticised the Americans for using excessive force in Fallujah – are there any aspects of American administration there which concern you?

PRIME MINISTER:

Look, I’m not going to start giving a detailed analysis or critique. People have different views about particular sorties and actions and military strategies. Broadly speaking, my view is precisely as I’ve stated. I’m not going to get into a analysis of that. If you have four of your citizens murdered and mutilated and tortured in the way that those four American citizens were, you are entitled to take appropriate retaliatory action.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, Iraqi asylum seekers in this country, those in the pipeline to be returned – what’s their immediate future?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, Amanda Vanstone has quite rightly indicated in view of the less settled situation in Iraq of recent times there may be a case for examination of those on a case by case basis. Not in a broad brush, but on a case by case basis. And she’s indicated that and I agree with that and that is a sensible, fair thing to do in current circumstances.

JOURNALIST:

If they do stay here, under what circumstances would they be?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I think we just leave it, you know, one step at a time. I’m not going to start running ahead in a general way, she said that they’ll be looked at on a case by case basis.

Thank you.

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