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Howard: Good Progress In Iraq And Stick With Brogden

March 23, 2003

The Prime Minister, John Howard, speaking at a Sunday press conference at Parliament House, Canberra, has expressed guarded optimism about the progress of the war against Iraq, saying "difficult days and battles could lie ahead".

Howard also expressed his sympathy following the overnight death of an ABC television cameraman, Paul Moran. Moran was killed by a suicide bomber driving a taxi in northern Iraq.

Howard also congratulated the NSW Premier, Bob Carr, on his sweeping election victory yesterday and called on the Liberal Party to stick with its neophyte leader, John Brogden, claiming he had run a "gutsy" campaign.


This is the transcript of the press conference held by the Prime Minister, John Howard, at Parliament House, Canberra.

PRIME MINISTER:

Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen. I've called this news conference to make a few general comments about the course of operations in Iraq. I don't intend to add to any of the operational details that have been provided by military spokesmen. It will be my habit and the Government's habit generally throughout the duration of the campaign to leave the detailed comments on the operational side of it to the military. I think that is the appropriate way to handle it.

It's fair to say that the campaign to disarm Iraq is going as well as might have been anticipated. There has been a great deal of progress made on the ground already. The signs of capitulation by elements of the Iraqi armed forces are encouraging. It's important of course that we guard against over-optimism. Difficult days and battles could lie ahead, particularly as the coalition forces get closer to Baghdad and potentially encounter units of the Iraqi military that have a reputation for providing greater resistance. I'm no wiser about the ultimate fate of the President of Iraq, of Saddam Hussein, and members of his family, than others who have been asked to comment both here, in the United States and in Great Britain. Suffice it to say that there appear to be very consistent patterns of a lack of order and an element of potential, if not actual, chaos in the command and control structure inside the Iraqi Government and the Iraqi military.

Every attempt is being made by the Americans and the British and other coalition forces to ensure that civilian casualties are kept to an absolute minimum and the evidence thus far is that that goal is being achieved. From an Australian perspective, there is no doubt that our forces have performed superbly in accordance with their very fine reputation for professionalism and skill and courage, and I want on behalf of the country to record our admiration and respect and gratitude to all of them and continue of course to share with all Australians a desire that their mission be accomplished quickly, successfully and safely so that they can, at the conclusion of the operation, return home. All of the elements have been involved - the special forces, the naval forces and the air force - and you will have been provided with details of what can be provided by the military spokesman. But again can I say that they have performed quite superbly and they have obviously won the admiration of their comrades in arms from the other coalition groups.

I join many others in expressing my sadness at the death of the ABC cameraman Paul Moran, who appears on the evidence available to have been the victim of a suicide bomber. It is reported that the suicide bomber was associated with an extremist terrorist group. The direct evidence in relation to that, I don't have, but that seems to be the basis of the widespread reporting. I rang the Managing Director of the ABC Russell Balding this morning to express the sympathy of the Government to the ABC and also to enquire as to the welfare of Eric Campbell, who I know is known to many of you. Arrangements are being made to assist Paul Moran's family and the Department of Foreign Affairs is assisting the ABC in relation to that.

The only other matter, which of course is unrelated to Iraq, that I think I should comment on is the outcome of the New South Wales election. I congratulate Mr Carr on his victory. I believe that the Liberal Party leader John Brogden ran a very gutsy and good campaign. It was always going to be an uphill battle given the ascendancy of the incumbent Government and the number of seats that were needed for victory. Clearly the Liberal Party in New South Wales must do a number of things, the first of which is to stick with Mr Brogden. They've had a pretty good track record of not being able to do that. He has got a lot of years in front of him. He has come across in this campaign as a very energetic young man with a lot of capacity to relate to people, and if they'll take any advice from me, and perhaps they won't, but I'll give it anyway, you're not going to do any better than him and you could do a lot worse. And I would strongly recommend that they all get behind him, they work hard over the next four years, develop policy a little earlier than a few months out and get it out, and they could certainly do a lot better next time. But I think he has won the respect of a lot of people with the gutsy campaign that he has run, and I wish him well.

Any questions?

JOURNALIST:

Are there any Federal implications?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, no.

JOURNALIST:

Do you think the war had anything to do with it?

PRIME MINISTER:

No I don't think there are any Federal implications. That was Mr Carr's view a little while ago. It was Mr Brogden's view when he spoke to me on Friday afternoon before the election. I don't think the campaign in Iraq had any impact. It may possibly have contributed a little bit to the boost in the Green vote in seats like Marrickville and Port Jackson where it was particularly high, but it probably would have ironically been at the expense of Labor.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard, can I ask you about civilian casualties [inaudible] some success in the goal of keeping those to a minimum. On what do you base that? We haven't heard many numbers. Have the Government received extra information?

PRIME MINISTER:

No I don't. Look, it's a sense I have Fran. Look we all hope that there are none but the point I'm making is that the early reports - I'm really basing it on an assessment of media reports Fran - I don't want to overstate it but equally I want you to understand that is a goal of the coalition forces that we share very strongly.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard, have you been taken aback by how heavily involved the Australian troops are? Are they punching above their weight?

PRIME MINISTER:

They always do.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard, given Mr Schieffer's comments this morning the US had upgraded its terror alert for obvious reasons, is Australia considering... is there any new information that Australia should look at informing the public of any...

PRIME MINISTER:

Well we now have been on a much higher terror alert for quite a long time now. The point that I have made and Alexander Downer has made and I think has to be made again in answer to your question is that since the start of operations in Iraq we haven't received any specific intelligence that would warrant a further upgrading or heightening of the terrorist alert. I mean it's already very high. All we're saying is that - we're not saying we're not living in a heightened atmosphere of terror alertness. We have been for some time since the 11 September 2001 and I mean obviously Bali had an enormous impact on Australia and Australians and we had a general alert at the end of last year. The other thing we're saying is that we haven't received anything since that would warrant something further. Now every country expresses things differently and the Americans have this coding system which we don't have but so far as specific intelligence is concerned that would justifiy gene! ral heightening of the alert, if we get that well we will. And I think the other point that has to be made that if something were to happen anywhere in the world over the next little while you can bet that the group responsible whether it was true or not would say 'oh this is to do with Iraq'. I mean I can say now that if something were to happen anywhere in the world the terror group would try to relate it in some way to Iraq whether that was true or not.

JOURNALIST:

How concerned are you about Surabaya? Is there any [inaudible] information on the threat to Australians?

PRIME MINISTER:

No. Surabaya was a very specific thing related to a group that has a record of being associated with terrorist behaviour long before operations started in Iraq. The department of Foreign Affairs put out something quite specific about that. I haven't got any further information but that's the sort of thing that one does on a fairly regular basis when you get information of that kind.

JOURNALIST:

As a member of the coalition of the willing how concerned are you about what seems to be a series of accidents over the last few days that have claimed the lives of coalition forces, British and American. And is the report from Britain this morning suggesting that the journalists that are missing, two British journalists, may have been hit and killed by American fire. Do you have any information on that.

PRIME MINISTER:

I don't have any information on that last thing. I've seen the press report. I have no information on that. Karen I'm very sad when accidents happen like that but sadly in a military operation they do happen. We have a lot of people. With all the best planning in the world there's a lot of congestion in the air and on the land and it's just terrible when something like that happens. It is unavoidable because of the complexity. It's inevitable those things will happen. They happened in the first Gulf War and there was, I think there was an incident wasn't there in Afganistan, not involving Australians but these things sadly do happen. We don't live, certainly not in a military operation, in an accident free environment.

JOURNALIST:

Have you thought about what would happen if weeks down the track the war is going well as far as the Coalition is concerned but we still haven't found Saddam Hussein.

PRIME MINISTER:

Oh look, I'm not going to get into that kind of speculation. I'm not putting some kind of timing on the end of the military operation. I am certain that the operation will be successful. I'm certain that the cause is not only just and right but also properly based in international law and I believe that the Government has made the right decision in committing our forces, but as to exactly when it will end and when certain events will occur it is not something that I'm going to speculate about, I think people who try and do that will get themselves into all sorts of bother.

JOURNALIST:

The time frame, was that something that came up in discussions with President Bush 36 hours ago. Did he indicate that now he seems to be indicating that it may take a bit longer than some people have been expecting.

PRIME MINISTER:

I don't think he's indicating anything differently from what he did before. We both agreed that it had started well, but we also recognise that as you get closer to Baghdad and if there is stiffer resistance being offered by the Special Republican Guard then the pace of the advance could be slow. We don't know. So far it is going at least as well as the expectations are. Perhaps a little better. I think it's fair to say that. But I'm by nature quite cautious in relation to these things and in any event in relation to the military side of it I prefer to leave observations on that to those who are the experts in the field.

JOURNALIST:

What would constitute a successful operation? You're saying you're confident it will be successful.

PRIME MINISTER:

The disarmament of Iraq and axiomatically that would result in the removal of the Saddam Hussein regime. I would regard that as, given the circumstances, as a successful operation.

JOURNALIST:

The Iraqi government today has been calling on all the Arab States to rise up against the American incursion and the Allies. What is your response to that call and how confident are you that they won't?

PRIME MINISTER:

I don't believe they will. Many of the Arab States are cooperating, cooperating very strongly. I can't imagine that a State like Kuwait would rise up against the Americans.

JOURNALIST:

What's your response to the Turkish, what appears to be Turkey moving into Iraq. Do you fear that there might be a war on several fronts.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well that is not exactly what has happened. There are gendarmes there but not military forces.

JOURNALIST:

[inaudible] it's not going to create a new fighting front in the north of Iraq?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think been handled appropriately by the Americans at present. That is essentially a matter between the United States and Turkey but I think it's been handled appropriately by the Americans at present.

JOURNALIST:

Will it be necessary for the coalition to find weapons of mass destruction to legitimise this military campaign?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I have no doubt that at a certain point of time the evidence of non-compliance by Iraq in relation to weapons of mass destruction will be found but I wouldn't...I mean commonsense tells you that you wouldn't find them along the roadway to Baghdad. I mean commonsense tells you that they've been very carefully hidden, dispersed, and any suggestion that you're sort of going to find them in the next little while is a bit unrealistic.

JOURNALIST:

The aborted air mission, is that a demonstration of the different approach Australia's taking on rules....

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I think...you will have heard a briefing in relation to that by the military, beyond reminding you that we operate, although we're part of a coalition, we operate under our own command and clearly we decide what operations our forces are going to be involved in because we do have a separate national command. I don't really beyond that want to add anything to what Brigadier Hannon said this morning because those sorts of things when you have this kind of operation occur from time to time. They're not evidence of any tension. They're just evidence of the fact that we are a separate sovereign country, we make our own decisions about certain things and the like. But beyond that I don't really want to add anything because there are military reasons for it, good reasons, I support them and we'll leave it at that.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, the Iraqi embassy officials are meant to be leaving Australia today. Have you received any confirmation that that will happen and will your Government give them any messages to take back to Baghdad?

PRIME MINISTER:

You should speak to DFAT or the Minister for Foreign Affairs about that. I'm not dealing with it. I have every confidence that he will handle it properly. If you want any further information speak to him or his office about it. I don't know.

JOURNALIST:

Given what's happened to cameraman Paul Moran and Eric Campbell do you have any message today to Australians who remain in Iraq and in areas around Iraq that are at risk?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well they were previously advised to leave. I can only repeat that advice. There are some people there acting as human shields. They shouldn't be there. They're taking a terrible risk. And I admire the risks that are taking by journalists in situations like this. They do risk their lives in order to bring news back to people and they should be respected for that and it is a dangerous operation.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, Simon Crean is no longer calling for the troops to come home. There's protests around the country, no antagonism really or antipathy being expressed towards the troops but still antipathy towards the war. One, are you heartened by that that it's not directed towards the troops and do you....and - B - are you still surprised that there are quite large protests happening around the country and around the world even as this battle's engaged?

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes. No.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, over the weekend the al Jazeera network was leading with images of US soldiers raising the American flag in the port of Umm Qasr that angered a lot of people. You're quite confident of winning the war, but how difficult is it to win the peace if the feeling is that these are a coalition of invaders?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well they're not a coalition of invaders. I reject that description totally.

JOURNALIST:

[inaudible]

PRIME MINISTER:

I think the description of liberation is a far more accurate one.

JOURNALIST:

The Iraqi Charge d'Affaires, Dr Saad Al Samarai said we look forward to a time when there would be an Iraqi diplomat back in Canberra and Australian diplomats in Iraq. [inaudible]

PRIME MINISTER:

Well we have no argument with the Iraqi people, none whatsoever.

JOURNALIST:

[inaudible] any prospect of....can you see that down the line any time?

PRIME MINISTER:

I would hope that when the disarmament of Iraq has been completed and axiomatically the existing regime has gone that we would see the resumption of diplomatic relations with Iraq. We want the Iraqis to run the affairs of the their own country. We have no argument with the people of Iraq, none whatsoever, and there never has been an argument with the Iraqi people so I see no reason why there shouldn't be a complete return to normalcy so far as diplomatic relations are concerned.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, regime change is now clearly part of your goals.

PRIME MINISTER:

No what I have said and I've used my words very carefully and you should look at them, is that our policy has been disarmament but obviously now and it's been obvious for some days that if the disarmament of Iraq has had to be effected by force then axiomatically the regime will change.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard, why isn't it regime change if Saddam is such a terrible man?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well we've had as an objective the disarmament of Iraq. I mean I agree with you that there are overwhelming, and your question implies something that I agree with, there are some overwhelming moral arguments.....

JOURNALIST:

It implies a contradiction in your argument.

PRIME MINISTER:

No it doesn't. It implies a reinforcement, not a contradiction. I mean I think the difficulty you might have, if I may say so with respect, is that if you apply that principle here you've got to apply it to every country that has a regime that you may not like and then you get into the business of the gradation of evil as far as regimes are concerned. That is quite a difficult notion for the world to come to terms with. But I think there are a lot of people who feel a revulsion about regimes in many countries and wonder why the world stands by and allows slaughter to take place in the name of respecting national sovereignty. A lot of people felt that with one of the failures of the United Nations in Rwanda and they felt it was a failure of the European countries in particular in the former Yugoslavia. These are difficult issues and you've got to be very careful that you don't sort of lay down something that can then be extrapolated and applied to another situation where they may not be quite the same level of moral revulsion and people are going to say yes we think it's a terrible regime but there are some risks involved in going after that regime that weren't involved in going after some other regime. They're difficult issues.

JOURNALIST:

So if Robert Mugabe had weapons of mass destruction....

PRIME MINISTER:

Much and all as I don't like Robert Mugabe and I think he rorted the election and I think he is starving his people, I'm not putting him in the same category as Saddam Hussein. Bad though I think his regime is, I am certainly not doing that. Let us keep our heads and our sense of proportion.

JOURNALIST:

Is this a new era now Prime Minister where certain sections of the world will now see it that they can move in and remove people that they think are committing genocide or...

PRIME MINISTER:

I don't think you start declaring new eras against the background of the current circumstances. Eras tend to emerge rather than be unilaterally declared.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, why is regime change axiomatic given the '91 war was settled with a ceasefire...

PRIME MINISTER:

Well because it was a military operation.

JOURNALIST:

I beg your pardon?

PRIME MINISTER:

...the military operation in '91 was limited to the expulsion of Iraq from Kuwait. This operation is designed to disarm the country of its weapons of mass destruction, it having manifestly failed to comply with Security Council resolutions to that end. So there is a huge difference between now and 1991. One more question.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, has there been any request from the US about more Australian troops being on standby for operations in Iraq?

PRIME MINISTER:

No. None whatsoever. We won't be contributing any more forces. We are contributing a very significant force component and they're doing extremely well and we're all very proud of them, and they're doing a fantastic job and we all hope they come back safe and sound. Thank you.

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