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John Howard Statement To The House On Iraq

This is the text and audio of Prime Minister John Howard’s Ministerial Statement on Iraq.

The statement related to Australia’s Defence Force commitment in southern Iraq.

  • Listen to Howard (17m)

Hansard transcript of Prime Minister John Howard’s Ministerial Statement on Iraq.

Mr HOWARD (Prime Minister) (3:11 PM) —by leave—Earlier this week Iraq’s Prime Minister, Nuri al-Maliki, announced the transfer of responsibility for security in Al Muthanna province from coalition forces to the Iraqi government (a process referred to as provincial Iraqi control).

Through the course of next month, the Iraqi security forces will take over responsibility for providing security in Al Muthanna, with the coalition providing support if requested by the Iraqi government.

This is an important step towards the Iraqi government taking control of the country’s security situation. Al Muthanna is the first province to be transferred entirely to provincial Iraqi control.

That this step can be taken is due in no small measure to the hard work, bravery and commitment of the Australian Defence Force. It also reflects the Australian government’s determination to help the Iraqi people secure a better future.

Since May 2005, Australia’s Al Muthanna Task Group has trained about 1,650 Iraqi soldiers of the National Iraqi Army’s 2nd Brigade. This brigade is already conducting security operations in Al Muthanna and it contributed to the success of the December 2005 elections. In conjunction with other Iraqi security forces, these soldiers will now assume primary responsibility for security within the Al Muthanna province.

The second key role of Australia’s Al Muthanna Task Group has been to provide a secure environment for the Japanese Iraq Reconstruction Support Group, which is conducting a range of important rehabilitation projects in Al Muthanna.

These projects have included the provision of training and technical support to four hospitals; the rehabilitation of approximately 30 health clinics and 35 schools; and the completion of dozens of other infrastructure projects.

Following the Iraqi Prime Minister’s announcement on security arrangements in Al Muthanna, and in accordance with the prospective completion of Japan’s reconstruction mission in the province, the Japanese Prime Minister, Junichiro Koizumi, has announced that his country’s contingent in Al Muthanna will be withdrawn.

The ADF will continue to provide security for the Japanese contingent until they have completed the final elements of their mission, which is likely to occur by the end of July.

Japan will remain a vital coalition partner in Iraq. Along with continued reconstruction assistance, Prime Minister Koizumi has announced that Japan will expand its Air Self Defence Force contribution to provide airlift support for the United Nations into Baghdad and Irbil.

These developments highlight both the determination of the Iraqi authorities to take control of their own destiny and the determination of Australia and other coalition partners to help them do so.

It is important to note the progress that Iraq is making on other fronts. Since January 2005, we have seen Iraq hold three national polls and draft a constitution. More than 15.5 million votes were recorded in elections in December last year, including approximately 12,000 recorded at polling booths across Australia.

Last month, Prime Minister al-Maliki’s cabinet was approved by the National Assembly.

Despite a difficult security environment, Iraq’s economy is growing strongly, with the IMF estimating real GDP growth this year of 10.4 per cent. International assistance is also playing a critical role in accelerating the delivery of basic services.

Electricity generation capacity has increased by 30 per cent. Roughly a third of Iraq’s school buildings have been rehabilitated in the last three years and 36,000 new teachers have been trained.

Iraq is experiencing significant growth in telephone and internet subscriptions. Vaccination programs for Iraqi children to ward off ailments such as measles, mumps, rubella and polio have expanded rapidly.

We have witnessed important progress in the judicial system. All provincial courts are operational. More than 700 judges have been trained. And Saddam Hussein is being publicly brought to justice for his crimes against the Iraqi people.

We have seen a flowering of free speech and a free press in Iraq, including 54 commercial television stations, 114 radio stations and 268 independent newspapers and magazines.

To see the Iraqi people striving to reclaim civil society in the cradle of civilisation, sometimes at great cost and against great odds, is a humbling experience for those of us privileged enough to live in a free and democratic society.

The courage of the Iraqi people serves as a constant reminder of why the international community must maintain its support for Iraq’s democratic transition and development.

Clearly the security situation in Iraq continues to be dangerous, notwithstanding that it has improved sufficiently in Al Muthanna province for responsibility to be handed over to Iraqi forces.

The death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi earlier this month has strengthened the hand and the resolve of all who want to see a peaceful and stable Iraq emerge from the grip of violence. But Iraq remains an active battleground in the global fight against terrorism. It also faces major challenges in terms of sectarian and criminal violence.

The transfer of security responsibility that will take place in Al Muthanna is an important step, but it is only one step.

There is still a big job to do in assisting the Iraqi authorities in meeting their security challenges. There remains a need for strong and continued support from the international community.

After careful consideration by the National Security Committee, the government has decided that Australian forces will take on a new role to support the Iraqi government and security forces.

Planning for this role has been done in consultation with our coalition partners and with the Iraqi government.

The ADF contingent will relocate from its current base at Camp Smitty near Samawah in Al Muthanna province to the coalition air base at Tallil, located some 80 kilometres to the south-east in the neighbouring province of Dhi Qar.

From its base in Tallil, the ADF will contribute to coalition operations in south-east Iraq under the banner of Operational Overwatch—the coalition effort to support the handover of primary responsibility for security to Iraqi authorities. The focus of ADF operations will initially be in Al Muthanna province and may expand to cover Dhi Qar province later in the year.

Our forces will have two responsibilities. The first will be to continue to engage with Iraqi security forces and local authorities, building on the relationships we have developed and the successful ADF training and mentoring program that has been under way since April last year.

This will involve a range of activities, including regular meetings with local leaders, exercising with the Iraqi security forces and supporting and mentoring them as they consolidate their capabilities.

As part of this engagement, we will also continue the ADF program of reconstruction assistance. This has so far delivered many valuable improvements to services and infrastructure for the local community in critical areas such as transport, health, veterinary and agricultural services and utilities.

The ADF contingent’s second responsibility will be to support the Iraqi authorities in crisis situations. While southern Iraq is relatively calm compared with other parts of the country, the security environment remains dangerous. Should situations develop that are beyond the capacity of the Iraqi security forces to resolve, the Iraqi government may call upon the coalition to provide them with backup.

This could involve the ADF providing support in areas such as communications, command and control, intelligence and surveillance and, in extreme cases, through direct military action.

The intelligence assessments available to the government indicate that the areas in which the ADF will be operating in its new role have among the lowest threat levels in comparison to the rest of Iraq.

That said, the ADF’s new role will be higher risk.

The government is keenly aware of the risks associated with this new mission and will ensure that the ADF has the resources it needs to carry out its tasks as safely and effectively as possible.

ADF troops in southern Iraq are well structured and equipped. In addition, ADF elements have access to coalition support capabilities, including medical evacuation, air support and other ground support enablers such as logistics and fire support.

A battle group similar in size and structure to the Al Muthanna Task Group (approximately 450 personnel) will be based at Tallil Air Base. It will comprise two combat teams: one cavalry combat team drawn from 2/14th Light Horse Regiment based in Brisbane and one motorised infantry combat team, drawn from 2nd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, based in Townsville.

The battle group will be under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Michael Mahy, Commanding Officer, 2nd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment.

The force will also include an ADF training team of approximately 30 personnel. Since the beginning of this month, the training team has been training and mentoring Iraqi instruction personnel at the Iraqi Army Basic Training Centre at Tallil Air Base. We are also making a small training contribution at the Counter Insurgency Academy in Taji, north of Baghdad.

Let me be very clear: Australia will not be hostage to a particular timetable for withdrawal from Iraq. We will only leave when the job has been finished. There may have been strong views either way on the original decision to go to Iraq, but there should be complete agreement on all sides now that this is not the time to leave the Iraqi people to their own devices; in other words, to cut and run.

Iraq is an active battleground in the international fight against terrorism. To leave Iraq prematurely would not only destabilise the Middle East; it would also provide comfort and strength to extremists all around the world.

To say that we should fight against the terrorists in Afghanistan but walk away from the struggle in Iraq is simply illogical. If countries such as the United States, Great Britain or Australia were to follow such logic, it would be nothing less than a disastrous defeat for the cause of freedom and the values we hold dear.

The point that Britain’s Prime Minister Tony Blair made in this very House in March is as powerful today as it was then. And I quote:

Here are Iraqi Muslims … saying clearly that democracy is as much our right as yours … This struggle is our struggle.

If the going is tough—we tough it out. This is not a time to walk away. This is a time for the courage to see it through.

Helping Iraq to achieve stability and democracy is in Australia’s national interest. And it is part of Australia accepting its global responsibilities.

Our support is at the request of the Iraqi government and the Iraqi people and is dependent on progress by Iraqi authorities in managing their own affairs.

We in the government are very mindful of the risks our men and women face in Iraq. I have never sought to hide those risks. As always, our thoughts and our prayers are with all those who are serving their country bravely overseas. I present a copy of the statement: Australian Defence Force commitment to southern Iraq.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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