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Iraq: transcript of press conference, Adelaide 17 January 2003



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Senator the Hon. Robert Hill, Minister for Defence Leader of the Government in the Senate

Transcript

17 Jan 2003

MIN30117/03

PRESS CONFERENCE

Commonwealth Parliamentary Offices, Adelaide

2:00pm CST, Friday, 17 January 2003

E&oe________________Iraq

Senator Robert Hill:

Thanks for coming. I understand that a number of outlets were asking for information in relation to the 12 warheads that were discovered by the inspectors in Iraq. We’ve got a certain amount of information on that that I can provide. They were empty 122mm munitions that were discovered at the Ukhaider ammunition storage area on the 16th of January. Eleven of the munitions are reported in excellent condition. The twelfth is creating some extra interests which is being studied by the experts. No substantial quantities of chemical or biological material was discovered in or around the uncovered munitions. They are likely to have been imported by Iraq during the late 1980’s. They are not declared by Iraq in either the 1997 declaration or the

declaration of December 2002. They would be prohibited under the UN resolutions and of course any chemical agents for which they were designed to carry would be prohibited also. They were discovered in an unused bunker. One of many that were

constructed, we believe, in the late 1990’s. They are obviously being examined in detail by United Nations experts and will be made out further reports on them in due course. The Iraqi Government is reported to have said that they were simply forgotten.

Whilst I guess that is always possible, when it’s looked at in the background of many years of deception of the Iraqi regime in relation to its weapons of mass destruction, one’s entitled to remain suspicious. Our information has been that...our information is

that Iraq continues to hold its weapons of mass destruction. Shells that are designed to hold chemical agents clearly fall within that description and at the very least it’s therefore disturbing to have confirmed in this way that they are still in possession of warheads of this type. There are a couple of other things that are sort of topical in relation to the issue of Iraq that I thought I should mention. The first is there’s

obviously a great deal of debate about the issue of pre-deployment of forces. We have said that we think that that is important in the interests of the ADF in terms of their own self protection, that they are as prepared as possible for any possible conflict although of course it’s a conflict that we’re still seeking to avoid, and as the Prime Minister in his press conference a week or so ago, that’s an important aspect of this

likelihood of Australians redeploying some forces in the region. But the other aspect is the importance of maintaining pressure on Saddam Hussein. There’s no doubt that he has demonstrated clearly and unambiguously over the last eleven years that he’s unlikely to cooperate if he believes he has any choice otherwise and it’s been our view for some time that needs to be made absolutely clear to him that he cannot get away with this attitude forever. As I said the other day, there is a need to draw a line in the sand, there’s got to be an end to this process. We have to have certainty after eleven years that these weapons will be destroyed and that his program for the further development of weapons of mass destruction will be ended. But it was interesting that when Kofi Annan, the Secretary General of the UN, was asked about the issue of US - the presence of US troops in the region that he in effect endorsed the importance of maintaining pressure upon the Iraqi regime. He drew the distinction between pressure and the threat of use of force and actual use of force and the purpose of in part of the forces in the region is to demonstrate to Saddam Hussein that this is in effect a last chance that he’s been given by the Security Council. There’s not going to be another chance and that if the international community is left with no other choice but to use force to achieve its objectives then it will do so. And lastly I simply wanted to reinforce yet again our commitment to the UN process. We always prefer a collective international response if at all possible. The Security Council has taken this final step in relation to the last resolution. It has given Saddam Hussein one last chance and we’re strongly supporting that process and we do hope that pressure can be brought to bare in various ways by the international community through the Security Council and through the presence of forces in the region will be such that before it is too late Saddam Hussein will realize that he must meet the demands that have been places upon him by the international community and end his weapons program without the need for military action. So I am very happy to answer questions.

Journalist:

Minister how much does this up the anti now for America to go in and lead a war?

Senator Hill:

The discovery of these munitions? It’s just a further piece of worrying information, if I can put it like that and the 27th the Inspectors will report. They will no doubt include this find within their report and also their assessment of what if means. I think the - just as important is the concerns that Blix and others are expressing about the lack of

full cooperation that they’re receiving from the regime. The emphasis is upon Saddam Hussein. It’s not upon the Security Council or upon the inspectors. He has been found to have these weapons. It has been found that they are in breach of previous resolutions of the UN. What he is now given is one last chance to end the program and destroy the weapons and unless the inspectors can return to the Security Council and say they have confidence that this has occurred then he’ll continue to be in breach of the resolutions. So the lack of cooperation that they’re receiving and particularly - there are a whole range of different weapons and agents that we know existed. He now says they’ve been destroyed but he won’t say where, and when, and by whom or provide access to those who are supposed to have destroyed them. That is what the inspectors refer to as a lack of cooperation which causes them grave concern and causes us grave concern. So they will report on that aspect and they will report on this find and anything else that they believe is important in informing the Security Council as to whether it can be confident that its resolutions are being met.

Journalist:

I guess though this is the exact kind of information they have been looking for ... for a war on Iraq?

Senator Hill:

Well we don’t - the task is not to justify our position. Certainly not to - the task is not to lead to war. The task is to try and end through peaceful means a program of weapons of mass destruction that the international community as a whole has determined is a threat and the Inspectors are simply designed to give confidence to the international community that that is being achieved, and unless they can give that

confidence, unless they can report to the international community Saddam remains in breach of the resolutions. And that calls upon the - and that then calls upon the Security Council to decide what further action should be taken and it’s really made clear already to them that this is the last chance for a peaceful resolution and I think it should be seen in that way.

Journalist:

Do you agree though that it is looking more likely that we won't find a peaceful resolution?

Senator Hill:

No I wouldn’t - I still refuse to lose all hope. This is another worrying aspect, but as I said the lack of cooperation that they are receiving is just as worrying, because what it does require, what all of these resolutions require is a change of attitude from

Saddam. You can’t just continue to hide and to bluff. Unfortunately from his prospective and from our prospective it’s worked for eleven years and he no doubt believes that it can continue to work and it’s so difficult to get the message across to him that this is the end, it’s just not going to go on forever. There is a sequence of events that have been set down in the Security Council resolution. The Security Council resolution is unanimous including countries even such as Syria, traditional friends and allies, and he’s just not going to be allowed to continue to get away with it.

Journalist:

Minister, how much of a vindication is this of the Australian Government's stand, the discovery of these weapons?

Senator Hill:

Well I don’t see it in those terms at all because our stance is that - there’s no doubt the weapons have existed, that’s been confirmed by the previous inspectors and our stance is, consistent with the rest of the international community, that they’ve got to be destroyed, he’s got to prove to the international community he has destroyed them and secondly the program for further development of these prohibited weapons must end. And that’s all we’re interested in - removing the threat by removing the weapons. Now this indicates that there are still weapons there that haven’t been destroyed, haven’t been removed. So that’s why I say it’s worrying because it seems to confirm the concern that we’ve had all along. And obviously the concern of the

international community as a whole or otherwise they wouldn’t have passed the last resolution.

Journalist:

You mentioned the importance of having a unified front in the international community, how much of a concern is it for you that there is a lack of perhaps unified front in the Australian community for the Australian Government stand, and with Labor not giving bipartisan support?

Senator Hill:

I can’t tell the Labor Party obviously to support the Government’s position. I would - if it unfortunately gets to the stage where it’s necessary to deploy Australian forces I would like to see wide spread community support for that and I would like to see the

other major political parties supporting it. But obviously there’s no way to insist on that. If that happens I certainly hope that all of the Australian community stands behind the forces that are deployed. It’s one thing to have a different point of view politically with us, but if we get to the stage of deployment I certainly hope all the political parties and the broad Australian community stand firmly behind those forces that are deployed.

Journalist:

But is the Australian Government prepared to go against the community attitude to this, and if it could be displayed for example that most Australians don't want to go to war will the Government disregard that?

Senator Hill:

The Government obviously doesn’t disregard community attitude. We’re there - we’re in government with community support. That’s how we get to Government and we respect the community’s views on this and all issues. But ultimately the Government has the responsibility to take executive decisions that it believes are in the best interests of Australia and ending this threat through ending the weapons program - the weapons of mass destruction program is in Australia’s interest. And we hope as I said and we are working towards the peaceful resolution of that and we have been for years. That’s why we’ve had our ships in the Gulf enforcing the UN sanction because it’s been believed by the UN that containment would work. Well now it’s believed that containment hasn’t worked and this final chance has been given to him to meet the requirement of the international community. But we take the decisions in Government that we believe are in Australia’s security interests and we hope that we can have community support in doing so.

Journalist:

So how do you respond to the Australian Education Union's motion today opposing Australia's involvement in war?

Senator Hill:

Well I could respond by putting a question back to them. If after eleven years of attempts to achieve this goal through peaceful means, it becomes apparent to the

international community that there is no peaceful action that remains, what does the Education Union then say. Does it say that you then you turn your back on these weapons and on this weapons program, and I don’t think that’s the attitude in the Australian community. I don’t think the Australian community want war. I don’t want war. Nobody wants war. But most Australians who’ve thought about this issue also don’t want countries such as Iraq under dictators such as Saddam Hussein to have chemical, biological and radiological weapons. Weapons that he’s been prepared to use on his own people in the past. A country and a leader that’s been prepared to invade their neighbours and, according to the British dossier that was published recently, a country that still has regional aspirations in that regard. The weapons in the hands of such people are a threat in themselves and that’s why for eleven years the international community has been trying to remove them.

Journalist:

Do you risk creating a new generation of Vietnam Vets by committing to war without the backing of the Australian public?

Senator Hill:

But I’ve said to you that I hope the Australian public will support a decision that the Australian Government takes that it believes, that the elected Government takes, that it believes is in the interests of Australian security and ultimately that’s the responsibility of Government. And you try to take the community with you and as I said I think if you put to the community the question of - if all peaceful options are

exhausted, this is the end of an eleven year process it’s not something that’s occurred overnight, if all peaceful options are exhausted and there’s no other alternative do we simply turn our backs on these weapons programs and accept that they are to be for the future. And I don’t think most Australians believe we should do that.

Journalist:

Minister you said there were 12 warheads discovered and one was creating special interest...what can you tell us about that?

Senator Hill:

I think it relates to possible contamination with a chemical or other agent and that needs further...I think at first glance seem to be very clean if that’s the appropriate word. There are some question marks about the twelfth and that’s receiving particular attention and examination.

Journalist:

You said that no substantial chemical ... or biological agents were found, does that mean that some were?

Senator Hill:

No it mean that...well it was at a place where I understand chemical weapons were once stored and that is not in dispute. It’s place has been bombed in the past so it is likely that there would be some remnants or such chemicals in the vicinity and I think

that’s why that advice in my brief has been worded in those terms. I don’t think that they have specifically identified chemical, biological agents.

Journalist:

How long does the process take....?

Senator Hill:

I haven’t got that but I wouldn’t think that would take very long.

Journalist:

A day, a week or?

Senator Hill:

I think days.

Journalist:

Do you expect any more weapons - were you surprised by this ...?

Senator Hill:

We are surprised by it because it was in an unsecured facility and we have suspected that the weapons that we believe he has would be held particularly secured, so we are surprised in that regard.

Journalist:

Does that merely indicated that they're really not that dangerous, that perhaps there wasn't an alteria motive to them?

Senator Hill:

Well the Iraqi regime was saying that their forces there knew but they simply forgotten, but I don’t know but that’s why I...

Journalist:

...

Senator Hill:

I hear that, but you’ve got to put on - you’ve got to weigh on the other side, you know eleven years of deceptive behaviour in this regard. So that’s why I don’t pass judgement on that. I await the findings of the inspectors and the experts who will be analysing those questions.

Journalist:

Do you expect more weapons to be found now?

Senator Hill:

Our view has been that it would actually be surprising if the inspectors did find the weapons. It is - you know Saddam Hussein’s regime has - are experts in the hiding of weapons of these types. Our suspicion, well our view has been that it was going to be

very difficult for the inspectors to find the weapons and that’s why we put emphasis upon providing access to them - access to the inspectors of the scientists and others who’ve handled these weapons in the past rather than simply going out and searching in bunkers and the like.

Journalist:

How do you prove a negative then, how do you decide after the process if you've found nothing, how do you decide that oh well there's nothing there, therefore there must be something there let's go to war? How does the process work?

Senator Hill:

Well the process, you see as I said a while ago, the finding is already there that he has the weapons and he’s in breach of the resolution. The issue is now is whether he has changed his spots and what the inspectors are saying so far is that they haven’t received a level of cooperation that they would expect if he had in fact changed his spots.

Journalist:

So that’s what’s ... the cooperation?

Senator Hill:

Well no. It’ll be tested. It’s got to be tested and I put to you the example of testing it in relation to the weapons that he says - he acknowledges that he had but he says are now destroyed. In other words, the inspectors can’t be expected to just accept that without testing it and so they would want access to the information as to where they were destroyed, how they were destroyed, who destroyed them and the individuals who carried out the destruction process and so far that has not been forthcoming from Saddam Hussein.

Journalist:

Would you say we are any closer or further away from war than what we were before this?

Senator Hill:

I wouldn’t put it in those terms no. I think that this is a process that is leading up to a report by the inspectors on the 27th of this month and that may not be the last report either and it may not be the end of the inspections. It really depends on what they report and how that is assessed by the Security Council. If they report that they don’t believe that - that they’re receiving a level of cooperation that’s necessary for them to effectively carry out their task that might be the end of the process. The Security Council might well say well there’s no point in this continuing and that’s why rather than draw too many dramatic conclusions from each event as it occurs we ... the event, we await the UN inspectors reporting on it in due course.

Journalist:

So it hasn’t brought us any closer to a war with Iraq?

Senator Hill:

Not as such. It’s just a further piece of worrying information because these shells are prohibited shells under the UN resolution. They weren’t included in the Iraqi declarations and that tends to reinforce the view of some that there is an ongoing deception.

ENDS