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Kim Beazley Statement To The House On Iraq

This is Opposition Leader Kim Beazley’s response to Prime Minister John Howard’s Ministerial Statement on Iraq.

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

  • Listen to Kim Beazley (17m)

Hansard transcript of Opposition Leader Kim Beazley’s statement to the House of Representatives on Iraq.

Mr BEAZLEY (Leader of the Opposition) (3:29 PM) —I agree with the last sentence of the Prime Minister’s statement. As always, our thoughts and prayers are with all of those who are serving their country bravely. But we should never have gone to Iraq in the first place, and we should not be there now. Iraq is a quagmire and staying there is not in our national interest. Make no mistake about it: we are opposed to the war in Iraq. We want our troops in Al Muthanna province home now, as the Japanese withdraw.

The Prime Minister and the government, since we have been involved in this story, have constantly shifted the goalposts on our troops. When troops were first sent to this conflict they were there to search for weapons of mass destruction which did not exist. At the time that rationale was developed, there were men within the US administration urging great caution upon the senior figures in the administration. There were allies of the United States urging great caution upon them. There were others who were saying that, whether or not those weapons of mass destruction existed, this was not the right first step to take. All this sound advice was coming from friends of the United States and honoured members of the administration itself. Nowhere amongst them could be found the ministers of this government, whose advocacy was always for war. The troubles which are now afflicting American foreign policy, as I will state a little later in my remarks, all stem back to that. At least a small part of the responsibility for these problems should be sheeted home to the other side of the House, particularly the members of the government frontbench.

Then the rationale became ‘regime change’. When no weapons were found, the government then said, ‘Our objective to remove Saddam Hussein was a very good thing and that has been achieved.’ But before the war this is what the Prime Minister had to say to the National Press Club:

I couldn’t justify on its own a military invasion of Iraq to change the regime. I’ve never advocated that. Much in all as I despise the regime.

Then the rationale for this commitment became to support the efforts of the Japanese in Al Muthanna province. Here is what the Prime Minister said on that occasion:

The Australian task group will have two roles. First, it will provide a secure environment for the Japanese Iraq Reconstruction Support group, which is currently building roads and schools, ensuring clean water supply, and delivering incidental health services to the people of that province. Second, the task group will be involved in the further training of the Iraqi security forces. That training is essential if the Iraqis are to assume responsibility for their own security.

That job is done now. The rationale for the deployment of those troops in Al Muthanna has come to an end. They should be thanked for the excellent service they have performed and they should be brought home.

We now get the rationale of ‘security watch’. It is no good for the Prime Minister to stand up in this place and say, ‘When the job is done.’ It sounds good as a spin meister’s slogan. It means nothing at all in the context of this conflict. The job keeps changing, according to the Prime Minister, and we are allowed to make assumptions that the job is defined on all occasions by politics. We had the Minister for Defence this morning saying that by the end of this year we should be able to give serious consideration to bringing those troops home. What criteria, what issues, what analysis has he provided to allow him to reach that conclusion? The answer is politics. We have the strongest suspicion on this side of the House that, whilst large numbers of countries have withdrawn their troops from Iraq, it is quite clear the Americans intend before the congressional elections to at least announce, if not activate, substantial draw-downs. While the British are, as we are speaking, substantially drawing down their forces from Iraq, we are left with the suspicion that there are politics here involved more around electoral timetables in the United States than decisions in the Australian national interest. So an opportunity has been lost. The opportunity which was originally reflected in the decision is one that should never have been taken.

We have nothing but praise for our troops and the roles that they perform, irrespective of the decisions that governments take and the adequacies or otherwise of the political performance of the national leadership of any political hue in this country. Our soldiers are excellent in professional terms—well motivated in personal terms and highly capable both as exemplars to others and in conducting themselves in any type of conflict situation. Nevertheless, they are deployed at risk. In an area where there has been substantial combat they are deployed without their own tanks, without their own high capability armoured fighting vehicles, without their own heavy artillery and without their own helicopter support. This is a dangerous thing to do.

In the original commitment in Al Muthanna province the troops had access to nearby divisional assets, coherently organised by the British in Basra that entailed all those things. Fortunately, their capacity or their need to access them was never tested. The Prime Minister asserted in his brief remarks to the parliament that somehow or other something similar to that is being provided without the clear-cut description that went originally with it when our troops were first committed in Al Muthanna province. I do draw attention to these things. The troops are in far more dangerous a situation than they were in previously. I accept the analysis of the Prime Minister and the intelligence officials that the situation is less dangerous where they are than in other places in Iraq. Nevertheless, it is substantially more dangerous than where they were.

Richard Armitage, a member of the Bush administration at the time the initial commitments were made and one of those urging caution upon the Bush administration and a great friend of Australia who was not supported by his Australian ministerial counterparts and friends at the time that he was urging caution on the US administration, said very recently to a journalist from the Australian:

The British used to make a big deal of walking around in their berets in the south. Now they won’t even go to the latrines without their helmets. The south has got much rougher …

In those circumstances I do think we are entitled to more than two paragraphs on the divisional assets being brought in to back up our troops, their readiness and availability to our troops and the circumstances which would trigger a commitment of American tanks, APCs, helicopters or heavy artillery if trouble came about. It is true that when trouble emerges in Iraq the presence of M1 Abrams tanks and Bradley armoured fighting vehicles is almost invariably required to pull you substantially out of trouble. We do have those LAV25s associated with the Australian armed forces. They are not as effectively armoured as are their American counterparts. We need to know these things if we are to do the right thing by our defence forces.

The politics of Iraq are not as they were in the immediate aftermath of the war and not as advertised by the Prime Minister in his remarks today. The fact that Iraq has attracted a considerable al-Qaeda activity in the aftermath of the original phase of the fighting has been due in no small measure to the fact that our presence in Iraq has acted as a magnet for all the ne’er-do-wells in the Middle East who seek an opportunity to deliver jihad against Western forces.

Originally the diehard elements of the Baathists and the al-Qaeda elements coming into Iraq were the substantial dynamics of the insurgency. That is no longer. That is a very small proportion of the insurgency now. Mostly what is going on in Iraq is Shia versus Shia, clan versus clan, Shia versus Sunni, Sunni versus Sunni and Sunni versus Kurd. The forces whom we train, be they police or army, are deeply infused with what is the confessional, sectarian and clan struggle inside the politics of Iraq now. And we find, often as not, that when murder and mayhem take place on the streets it is sometimes conducted by a militia outside officialdom and often it is conducted by somebody legitimately in uniform.

We are in a political situation and quagmire of which we have no understanding and on which there has been no effective debate conducted in this country. But in all the other countries which are participants with us in Iraq there is the certain knowledge that ultimately the political solution in Iraq now totally depends on the political outcome in that struggle that I have referred to and that, effectively, Western forces can play little or no role in that, and in some instances the presence of Western forces complicates the task as they are sought to be manipulated by one or other of these contending forces or they attract into the country some of the ne’er-do-wells associated with al-Qaeda about whom we are speaking.

What has been the result of what the government has wrought in Iraq? The government has responsibility here because one of the factors involved in President Bush’s decision, a decision he now much regrets, was the firm belief on his part that the sanctions regime on Saddam Hussein had broken down. He was convinced it had broken down and was not working in a way that sufficiently contained the capacity of Saddam Hussein to develop weapons of mass destruction. President Bush was overly pessimistic in his assessment in that regard, but he was absolutely right when he said that the sanctions regime had broken down. It broke down in no small measure on the neglect of Australian ministers. So there is a level of personal responsibility attached to the government for creating the situation that has put the United States in so much trouble.

This has been a bad war for the United States and its allies. It has sucked the oxygen out of US foreign policy all over the world. The war has made Iran stronger in the Gulf region, the war has made it impossible for the United States to deal with Iran or Syria effectively, the war has increased the prestige of the arch-criminal Osama bin Laden everywhere in the Arab and Islamic world and, worst of all, the war has made it harder, not easier, to fight international terrorist networks all over the world.

The Prime Minister says, ‘How can you be consistent and argue’—as we do—‘that Australian troops are properly engaged in a struggle in Afghanistan but not so in Iraq?’ Let me now tell the Prime Minister why that is so. We are engaged in Afghanistan because we are signatories to the ANZUS alliance. We invoked the ANZUS alliance in the aftermath of September 11 and justified an attack on the then regime authorities in Afghanistan and removed them. We rightfully participated in that, but the job is not done. The job has not been completed.

The second reason why we should be in that struggle now and why it differs is that the internal situation that I referred to in relation to Iraq does not exist in the same way in relation to Afghanistan. The threat in Afghanistan comes from remnant Taliban efforts across the border from Pakistan and remnant al-Qaeda efforts across the border from Pakistan. We are defending the Afghan people against invasions of the folk that we drove out in the first place. That is why we must continue the struggle there.

When we come to looking at the issues engaged in international terrorism, we note this: while the situation in Iraq is complex, and certainly there is an al-Qaeda element there, in the case of Afghanistan it is al-Qaeda central, it is Taliban central, it is terror central—and if we do not win this summer or next summer, we will lose in Afghanistan. That is why it is absolutely essential that over these next two years we mount a substantial military effort in Afghanistan—and the Labor Party support it and would support more. What we will not support is reinforcing error, strengthening mistakes—and that is what is happening in Iraq. When the US engaged with Afghanistan, it had the support not only of all its old Cold War enemies—the Chinese and the Russians—but of all its European allies, its Australian ally and the overwhelming number of countries in the Middle East—it had the support of all of them. Since the engagement in Iraq, since the gradual bogging down in the quagmire, since we have taken upon ourselves the burden of being dragged deeper and deeper into civil and sectarian conflict, we have lost all of that. We have lost that coherence of response.

That is why bin Laden has been a beneficiary of the war in Iraq. That is why Iran, previously identified as a rogue regime, has been the beneficiary of the war in Iraq. The people who have not been beneficiaries of that war have been the young Americans who have had to fight it and die in it. The people who have not been beneficiaries of that war have been the many Iraqi civilians who have died and who go on dying. The time has come now to leave the Iraqi people to themselves as best they can to sort out the problems that they now confront. This—I repeat what I said the first time we committed with troops—is a mistake. It is a profound mistake. The mistake should be dispensed with now. (Time expired)

Debate (on motion by Mr Bartlett) adjourned.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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