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Australia, UK on same page on Iraq: Downer -

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Australia, UK on same page on Iraq: Downer

Reporter: Kerry O'Brien

KERRY O'BRIEN: And now the imminent announcement in London that America's strongest ally in Iraq is
about to begin withdrawing troops from the southern provinces in which they are based. Britain's
Prime Minister Tony Blair will tell the House of Commons tonight, our time, that more than one
third of his 7,000 strong force in Iraq will be back home by the end of this year - the BBC says
3,000 by November. The first 1,500 of them are expected to be coming home within weeks. Although Mr
Blair is yet to fill in the details, both the White House and the Australian government have
confirmed that they are aware that this announcement is coming. The decision would leave somewhere
between 4,000 and 5,000 British troops in southern Iraq next year. But one report from London says
they, too, will be gone by the end of next year. The Australian Government, which is in the process
of increasing its numbers in Iraq by some 70 military trainers, has been quick to paint the British
decision as a reduction, rather than a withdrawal. With the government struggling in the polls, the
Prime Minister has been attempting to dent Opposition Leader Kevin Rudd's national security
credentials by attacking his plan to withdraw the 500 plus Australian troops working closely with
the British forces in the south. Britain's decision to reduce its numbers at least muddies those
waters. To discuss the development I'm joined from Perth by Foreign Minister Alexander Downer.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Mr Downer, you seem very keen to avoid the word "withdrawal" or even "partial
withdrawal" with regard to Mr Blair's decision. It does seem, though, that that partial withdrawal
is of some significance. Now, whether you call it a withdrawal, a partial withdrawal or a
reduction, it all means the same thing, doesn't it? I just wonder why you are splitting hairs?

ALEXANDER DOWNER, FOREIGN MINISTER: Well, I wasn't really. It was a reflection on the question that
was asked. Let me make this point when the Iraq war began, the British had 46,000 in Iraq. They
reduced that to 18,000 and they reduced it to 8,000 and now they have about 7,100. We expect that
Tony Blair will make an announcement, which is to reduce that number down to 5,200, but this is
because of changing circumstances in Basra. It's exactly what we would welcome; that is, that the
Iraqi security forces will be able to take over more of the functions in Basra, and the British
role will become more similar to the existing Australian role, that is an overwatch role in
assisting with training and mentoring, and that's as it should be. So it's a perfectly natural
reduction in their numbers, but it'll be a reduction to around 5,000. So they will still have 10
times as many troops there as we will have.

KERRY O'BRIEN: But, you're sure it's a reduction to 5,000 and not even, possibly, 4,000?

ALEXANDER DOWNER: Look, that's my information. We'll have to wait till Prime Minister Blair makes
his speech tonight and, certainly, the British haven't foreshadowed, as you were quoting in your
introductory remarks, they would be withdrawing all of their troops by any particular time. The
British position and our position is actually identical; that is, we believe that withdrawals
should be conditions-based, not time-based. When the conditions are right, we can reduce numbers.
When the conditions are even better, and the Iraqi security forces can do the full security job,
then there won't be any need for international forces there. Our point is that there shouldn't be a
sudden withdrawal of troops for political reasons, which is what Mr Rudd proposes. There should be
withdrawals of troops for security reasons when the Iraqi security forces can maintain security in
the country.

KERRY O'BRIEN: You say it's for political reasons. I imagine Mr Rudd would argue the toss on that.
The bottom line is

ALEXANDER DOWNER: I'm sure he'd put his case, but he's not here to do so.

KERRY O'BRIEN: The point is that we are going to see the British taking a significant number of
troops home in the next few weeks. We are going to see them take another significant number of
troops home before the end of this year. At the same time, we are seeing Australia increasing its
commitment to Iraq. Now, I know that that's substantially training-based, but nonetheless, those
are the images that we are seeing. At the same time

ALEXANDER DOWNER: Well, I think

KERRY O'BRIEN: At the same time you are repudiating Mr Rudd's plan he wouldn't put in effect,
anyway, until after he won the election, if he won the election, at the end of this year.

ALEXANDER DOWNER: Sure. The thing about Mr Rudd is, he plays all ends against the middle. He has
every imaginable position. He just snatches out the result that will suit him for the interview.
But, look, Mr Rudd, basically, is arguing that withdrawal of troops should be time based. We are
arguing that withdrawal of troops should be conditions based. Now, in the case of the British,
they've got about 7,100 troops in and around the Basra area. Those people are not just doing
overwatch, mentoring and training, which is what our troops are doing. They are doing patrolling of
the streets of Basra. Now, the Iraqi security forces are at least in sufficient state in Basra to
be able to do that function. So, the British function will be reduced more to the sort of function
that we are performing. I think the British are exactly right. This is exactly what you should be
doing. But I don't think Prime Minister Blair is going to announce to the House of Commons during
the course of our night tonight that the British are just going to give up on Iraq and set a
timeline and then they'll just leave, regardless of the situation in Iraq on that particular time,
and that is essentially the Rudd proposition. Sometimes it's the Rudd proposition, and that
probably is what he fundamentally believes.

KERRY O'BRIEN: By the same token, Mr Downer, although the same reports that said that the final
British withdrawal would take place by the end of next year, and it acknowledged that Whitehall had
hosed that expectation down

ALEXANDER DOWNER: I think they denied that, didn't they?

KERRY O'BRIEN: That Mr Blair would say that tonight. But nonetheless, that doesn't deny the fact
that the reports are there that this is part of a British plan for a complete phased withdrawal by
the end of next year, whether they acknowledge that now or not.

ALEXANDER DOWNER: Well, that's drawing an extraordinarily long bow. I think what the British
position is is that the -

KERRY O'BRIEN: Not necessarily.

ALEXANDER DOWNER: Well, it's a report that has been denied by Whitehall, so let the viewers
understand that. The second thing is, let us understand this: the British position is identical to
our position. Of course, we want to get out of Iraq as soon as we can, but as soon as we can means
as soon as the Iraqi security forces are able to sustain a presence and sustain government in Iraq.
So, we don't know exactly when that time is going to be, but we know when that time arrives and
those conditions are right that we'll be able to leave Iraq, and everybody feels comfortable with
that argument. My debate with the likes of Mr Rudd is that if you have just a time based withdrawal
and you withdraw before the job is done, if you like, before the Iraqi security forces can maintain
security, you will not only cause a complete massacre in Iraq, but you will also give a massive
victory to terrorists, and I know that our position may not be very popular, and I know that Mr
Rudd and others can make debating points against us, but I believe very passionately that our
security depends on the right position in terms of the Iraq issue.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Are you saying that the withdrawal of 500 Australian training troops, largely
training troops, would lead to massacres in Iraq?

ALEXANDER DOWNER: We, I think the withdrawal well, you know exactly what I'm saying, so don't try
to be clever.

KERRY O'BRIEN: No, I'm sorry, could you clarify that, please.

ALEXANDER DOWNER: I'm saying that the withdrawal of all coalition forces would absolutely lead to
massacre. Because, I mean, people say they are concerned about bloodshed in and around Baghdad, and
we are all deeply concerned about it. But if you are concerned about bloodshed surely you wouldn't
want to see the situation get massively worse with the withdrawal of coalition forces from Iraq.
Now, of course, Australia's contribution is -

KERRY O'BRIEN: We all know, Mr Downer, that while George W. Bush remains President it is highly
unlikely that American forces are going to be withdrawn, and George W. Bush is going to remain
President, as far as we know, until the end of next year.

ALEXANDER DOWNER: Beginning of 2009. I think you will find the American position, the British
position, our position, probably the same with the South Koreans and others who have troops in
Iraq, and there are, I think, 25, 26 or so countries with troops in Iraq, our positions are all
pretty similar. That is, that it is conditions based. I mean, I don't know how quickly the Iraqi
security forces are going to be able to handle security, but what I do know is they are getting
better. Of course, a big test of this is going to be the way they are able to perform in the next
few months in and around Baghdad with the assistance of the American surge, as that comes on
stream. But if you go down to the south of Iraq, where we and the British are, of course our
numbers, the British numbers, our numbers of course are massively smaller than the American
numbers, which are 140,000-150,000, but that's because the security environment there is completely
different. The Iraqi security forces now are able to do a lot of the job in the south. We, though,
need to provide overwatch and support for them if they get into trouble. If we abandon that task
that obviously will jeopardise their capacity to maintain security in all circumstances in the
south for the time being.

KERRY O'BRIEN: But, as you know, Iraq's deputy Foreign Minister said on 'Lateline' two nights ago
that if an Australian withdrawal from Iraq is done in consultation with Iraq, "I don't think it
will create much problem". It doesn't exactly sound like they are relying heavily on Australia.

ALEXANDER DOWNER: Well, in al-Muthanna and Dhi Qar provinces they do rely on Australia. In other
parts of the country, obviously, they don't.

KERRY O'BRIEN: He is saying it specifically about the Australian presence.

ALEXANDER DOWNER: I know. Of course, Australia could just flee from Iraq in ignominy.

KERRY O'BRIEN: He didn't say that.

ALEXANDER DOWNER: No, I'm saying that. And say to the Iraqis and the Americans and the British and
others, "Well, you're on your own. It is politically inconvenient for us to be there. So you fill
the gaps." They would scurry around and try to find a way of doing that as best they could. I don't
it is hypothetical, because they haven't been trying to, and I don't know how they would do it. But
it seems to me, as a serious country committed to making sure that terrorism doesn't threaten our
region any more than it already does, we should make every possible to effort to try to contribute
to a coalition effort to secure Iraq. I mean, between 10 and 12 million Iraqis on three occasions
have gone out and voted for their Constitution and their government. Surely we don't want to see it
all handed over to insurgents and terrorists who represent a tiny minority of Iraqis.

KERRY O'BRIEN: You don't seem to be concerned about the message that this significantly partial
British withdrawal from Iraq, more than one third of their remaining forces there, will send to
terrorists?

ALEXANDER DOWNER: I don't think you will find it is more than one third. I think you will find the
numbers will reduce from 7,100 to 5,200, just as a matter of fact. But, secondly, of course not
because, in the southern part of Iraq, the Iraqi security forces are now much more capable of
handling the job. You don't need to keep more forces there than are necessary and if the British
can do the job in the Basra area with 5,200 rather than 7,100, that makes sense. I mean, they've
had 8,000 there, they've had 18,000 there. They have substantially reduced the number of forces
they've had in the south over quite some period of time.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Then you can say with full confidence that you don't believe that you know that
these withdrawals are not part of an exit strategy by Britain?

ALEXANDER DOWNER: Well, everybody has an exit strategy, but everybody's nearly, well, not quite
everybody, but Britain, Australia, America's and others' exit strategies are conditions based, not
time based. So I'm not saying that the British, the Australians or for that matter the Americans
always want to stay in Iraq, and want to colonise Iraq. Of course we don't. What I am saying is, we
will make decisions on troop numbers on the basis of the situation on the ground. If the American
surge is successful in concert with the Iraqi security forces in and around Baghdad, you'll see a
reduction in American forces in and around Baghdad as well. That doesn't mean they are giving up on
Iraq. That just means that the construction of forces will change as circumstances change.

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

ALEXANDER DOWNER: It's a pleasure.