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Downer on Australia's commitment in Iraq -

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Downer on Australia's commitment in Iraq

Reporter: Kerry O'Brien

KERRY O'BRIEN: Prime Minister John Howard and Foreign Minister Alexander Downer have repeatedly
said Australia won't cut and run until the Iraq Government can stand on its own feet. But might
Australia embrace the start of the military withdrawal if President Bush does? I spoke with Mr
Downer from our Parliament House studio late this afternoon.

KERRY O'BRIEN: What do you think of the Iraq Study Group report, Mr Downer? Or would you rather
wait and see what President Bush says first?

ALEXANDER DOWNER, FOREIGN MINISTER: No, I've had a look at the report. I haven't got on top of
every detail of it but I've had a quick look at it during the course of today and I think it's a
good piece of work. It'll make a useful contribution to the Americans' contribution of their
strategy, particularly in and around Baghdad. I mean, it draws all the right conclusions about the
ultimate objectives of ensuring that the democratic government and the democratic constitution can
be sustained by the Iraqi forces and, obviously, the debate here is how best to deploy, for the
Americans to deploy their forces, especially in support of building up the Iraqi security forces.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Do you agree with the study group that the situation is grave and deteriorating?

ALEXANDER DOWNER: Well, I think - I look at this in an overall historic context. I think first of
all that the, getting rid of Saddam Hussein's regime was done exceptionally well with great
precision and efficiency. Secondly I think it was a remarkable thing, really, particularly in
retrospect that a democratic institution was drawn up and voted in and there were democratic
elections. The third thing, I think, is that in recent times the violence in and around Baghdad has
got worse and is a very serious problem and obviously the Americans are going to think about how
best to address that over and above what they've been doing up until now.

KERRY O'BRIEN: You keep talking about the Americans; we'll come to Australia in a minute, I guess.


KERRY O'BRIEN: But when you talk about what a great thing it was to see Saddam Hussein go, and I
think you've said 300,000 Iraqis were killed by Saddam - do you know how many Iraqis have been
killed since the war?

ALEXANDER DOWNER: No, there have obviously been various estimates of that. Of course, the tragedy
of it is that so many of the Iraqis who have been killed in recent times are being killed by Iraqis
and by al Qaeda. Not all of al Qaeda are Iraqis, of course, a lot are foreigners. Al Qaeda has been
successful in killing people, attacking Shi'a mosques and trying to encourage sectarian conflict
and there is a combination of former Ba'athist regime elements, Saddam Hussein supporters, al Qaeda
operatives and, of course, sectarian militias operating mainly, not exclusively, but mainly in and
around the Baghdad area, and it makes for a pretty nasty situation.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Of course, this report says that the actual violence caused by al Qaeda is minor
compared to the sectarian violence between Shi'as and Sunnis. The report says bluntly that the
violence is already dire, the situation deteriorating and says, if it gets worse, the Iraqi
Government could collapse, sparking a humanitarian catastrophe. I mean, it really does sound like
an unmitigated disaster that could reverberate for decades?

ALEXANDER DOWNER: Obviously, it's a difficult situation. I think that goes without saying. We don't
have to be told that by the Baker Hamilton report. You only have to watch the news night after
night to understand that. The question is how best to handle it. What the Baker Hamilton report
makes clear which is what, by the way, not just the Americans but I think I'm right in saying
pretty much any government I've spoken to in recent times on this issue has made clear that the
Americans, and the coalition can't just walk out of Iraq and if that were to happen it would not
only cause a most horrific bloodbath, but I think - and I've made this point myself, so I'm glad to
read it in the Baker Hamilton report that it could easily lead to a regional war drawing in
countries like Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria, possibly even Turkey because of the Kurdish issue. It is
very important at this time not to be a couple of things not to be defeatist, not just to surrender
and allow that particular scenario to occur, but, on the other hand, to work through how better can
the Iraqi security forces be trained? How better can the reconciliation process in Iraq that the
Prime Minister there says he's presiding over, how better can that reconciliation process work?

KERRY O'BRIEN: Well, the Iraq Study Group is promoting a substantial withdrawal of US combat forces
other than those still embedded with the Iraqi forces by the first quarter of 2008. That's not much
more than a year away. If President Bush embraces that goal, presumably Australia would do the
same, wouldn't it?

ALEXANDER DOWNER: Well, Australia, of course I'll come to Australia in a second. First of all, the
Iraqi study group isn't saying, "Let's set a date and let's withdraw from Iraq" , what the Iraqi
study group is saying is what I think is the right thing to say, that the task here - and we've
been saying this for a very long time now is to stand up an effective Iraqi security force,
particularly military, so they can take over - well, hang on.

KERRY O'BRIEN: But on that point.

ALEXANDER DOWNER: So they can take over security.

KERRY O'BRIEN: But on that point, the report says, "There is little evidence that the long term
deployment of US troops by itself has led or will lead to fundamental improvements in the security
situation in Iraq," and it says that the build up of reliable Iraqi military forces is problematic.
The situation with police is worse. It says, "Iraqi police can't control crime, they routinely
engage" - this is the police - "routinely engage in sectarian violence, including unnecessary
detention, torture and targeted execution."

ALEXANDER DOWNER: Sure, I've read it. Can I just make the point to you, if this is an argument that
the best solution here is just to walk out and do nothing, that's not an argument that I buy.

KERRY O'BRIEN: I'm not suggesting that I'm posing these questions.

ALEXANDER DOWNER: You've had a good run. Let me just say this. I think that the idea of looking at
better ways, particularly of building up the Iraqi Army, which is particularly more efficient and
more proficient than the Iraqi police, is an appropriate issue to consider. Embedding Americans in
Iraqi units, that already happens. But to do that to a greater extent and to put more resources
into training and less resources over time into combat operations. I think my own view is that that
is inevitably going to happen, but the timing of it

KERRY O'BRIEN: But the coalition's had three years already -situation grave, getting worse?

ALEXANDER DOWNER: I think the argument here is that - is the balance between training and combat
operations the right balance? Or would it be better to put a greater emphasis on training and
embedding and less emphasis on combat operations so that through better training and more embedding
of American forces into Iraqi units those Iraqi units would be able to do more of the combat work
themselves? That is essentially what the argument is here. I think you'll find the administration -
look, I can't speak for them, but obviously we've been speaking to them a lot in recent times about
this. I think they will be reasonably sympathetic to that proposition.

KERRY O'BRIEN: There's a section of the report headed "US, Coalition and Iraqi Forces". Australia
is not even mentioned in that section Britain is, not Australia. So I wonder, just how important is
Australia's presence in the overall equation we're talking about, and I'll ask again. If President
Bush endorses a withdrawal similar to that being suggested by this group, would Australia adopt a
similar position? Do you have any idea when you would --

ALEXANDER DOWNER: I'll explain to you, because you're putting a spin on this and you're trying to
persuade your listeners that this is suggesting that American troops will withdraw by early 2008.
That's not what the report is saying.

KERRY O'BRIEN: I said very clearly, Mr Downer, they were suggesting a withdrawal of all forces
other than those embedded with Iraqi troops by Autumn 2008.

ALEXANDER DOWNER: And trainers and, of course, there would be overwatch responsibilities in order
to assist the Iraqis in the worst imaginable circumstances where the Iraqi security forces were
unable to handle a particular situation. My answer in relation to Australia is that the Australian
troops do what, I think, is an entirely appropriate thing and is, if you like, a window into the
future of what Americans will increasingly do and that is that we do training, we do mentoring for
Iraqis and we provide an overwatch operation. We don't do day to day combat work. Where we operate
in Dikar and al Muthanna provinces, we are there to provide additional support to the Iraqi
security forces if they get into trouble and can't help themselves out. But on the other hand, a
lot of the day to day work is the training and mentoring job. So the challenge here, the big
picture here is to get the Iraqi security forces to be able to take responsibility for Iraq to the
extent that the democratic government can be sustained rather than it fall to terrorists and
insurgents. I mean, it's actually as simple as that.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Briefly, on Suva, Mr Downer, you've urged Fijians to engage in passive resistance
against the military and post coup regime. Is that kind of advice wise if it leads to a violent
response by the military, which has been threatened by Bainimarama, and people are hurt?

ALEXANDER DOWNER: It is wise. It is wise to stand by the ordinary people of Fiji and the enormous
number of people in that country who want to conduct the campaign of passive resistance. Of course
it's difficult for them and my heart goes out to a lot of them. I'm very conscious, for example, of
the way Commodore Bainimarama has maltreated the Public Service Commissioner and he has treated him
physically very badly. I am very conscious of that. But I am very conscious, by the way, of the
views of the vast majority of the Fijian people and I'm very conscious of the view of the Great
Council of Chiefs, which is the indigenous peak body, and I think a country like Australia should
stand by the ordinary people of Fiji, not look as though we'll give a wink and a nudge to Commodore
Bainimarama. We certainly won't be doing that and I just want to add that I admire the way New
Zealand is strongly taking this same position.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Alexander Downer, thanks for talking with us.

ALEXANDER DOWNER: It's a pleasure.