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Adelaide, 12 February 1998: transcript of doorstop [Iraqi situation]

EOE PROOF COPY

Mr Downer: I obviously want to say something about the Iraqi situation and the Australian Government's position. The Government is now intensifying its diplomatic effort to try to encourage an appropriate and peaceful solution to the crisis with Iraq. The Australian Government does believe that this problem would best be solved diplomatically and we hope that the Iraqi government will reconsider its intransigence and move towards an appropriate solution to this problem which allows the United Nations Special Commission inspectors to inspect its sites in an unfettered and in an unconditional way. I have instructed our Ambassador in New York, Penny Wensley, to re-inforce our support for a diplomatic solution with other missions there in New York and I've also got our key posts around the world to intensify their contacts with host governments and also relevant international organisations. I believe Australia has to do everything it can to achieve a diplomatic solution. We obviously hope it won't be necessary for there to be a military resolution to this problem, that is very much a last resort and that is why we are intensifying our diplomatic activity at this time. Over the last two weeks I have had the opportunity to meet a number of Foreign Ministers from South East Asia, from South Asia, Europe and in those conversations I've been able to articulate the views of the Australian Government and to compare notes on the situation in Iraq. There is almost an unanimity of views around the world that Saddam Hussein must adhere to the Security Council Resolutions and allow the United Nations Special Commission to inspect sensitive sites in Iraq. There is no argument about that, and I think the more we can apply diplomatic pressure to Saddam Hussein, then the better chance we are going to get of an appropriate outcome. I note that during the course of the last 24 hours the Deputy Prime Minister of Iraq has made a statement that articulates what he believes is a compromise. The Australian Government regards the proposal put forward by Iraq as unsatisfactory. As I have said we think that there should be unconditional and unfettered access by the United Nations Special Commission into sensitive sites, including Presidential sites. The latest Iraqi initiative is nevertheless indicative that Saddam Hussein understands the strength of the resolve of the international community to ensure that United Nations Security Council resolutions are adhered to and that UNSCOM is able to do the work it was set up to do. I don't think there is any doubt that if the international community shows strength and resolve it will be possible to solve this problem, if the international community shows weakness if the international community is seen to be backing down in the face of Saddam

Hussein, then we will end up with a country ruled by a dictator, who has in his hands weapons of mass destruction. From Australia's perspective, and I know from the perspective of all countries around the world, that is completely unacceptable.

Journalist: Do you not concede that a compromise is unlikely given that the US has rejected the Iraqi compromise?

Mr Downer: Well, the Iraqi compromise plan as I've said is unacceptable because it is conditional and it is substantially restrictive. The Iraqi compromise gives access not to UNSCOM but to components of UNSCOM and to other personnel, basically from the permanent five members of the United Nations Security Council, to eight Presidential sites. It is also conditional in that these inspections must take place within 60 days. What the Security Council Resolutions make perfectly clear is that access should be unconditional, unrestricted and of course that access should be to the United Nations Special Commission - to UNSCOM. So whilst this is an unacceptable proposal from the Iraqis, it is a sign that they are beginning to understand the strength of international resolve and the need for Iraq to try to resolve this problem without the rest of the international community having to resort to military means.

Journalist: Mr Downer, if you're so intent on enforcing the UN resolutions, why not the same attitude to the other ones around the world, like 425 to get Israel our of Lebanon, the Turks out of Cyprus, the Timor resolutions. Why are these ones so different?

Mr Downer: Well there are two things to say about that. In the case of Resolution 425 we have taken the view that that resolution could be implemented in the context of the Middle East peace process, and we very much hope that's going to happen and the resolution will be implemented. We obviously support the implementation of Security Council resolutions and it's no excuse to say that because there has been failure on occasions in the past to implement Security Council resolutions that it is a good excuse to ignore these Security Council resolutions and allow Saddam Hussein to continue to develop weapons of mass destruction. Frankly that would be folly of the worst kind and it's also intellectually an incoherent argument. Our greatest concern is that Saddam Hussein is developing weapons of mass destruction. He has used weapons of mass destruction. He used chemical weapons against Iran, he has used them against his own people within his own country. The warnings are all there and Saddam Hussein of course in Iraq is in one of the most if not the most sensitive regions in the world.

Journalist: In the former Gulf war, (inaudible) he didn't use any those weapons (inaudible)?

Mr Downer: If you seriously think that it is an argument to do nothing about this because Saddam Hussein wasn't able to launch his chemical and biological weapons during the Gulf War, I think you are profoundly mistaken, because although he didn't or wasn't able to use those weapons during the Gulf War he used them against Iran and used them against his own people. So my point is he's got form and in the case of the Gulf War the result in the Gulf War is that Kuwait was successfully liberated. There was a peace settlement which included United Nations Security Council Resolutions. Iraq indicated initially and gave adherence to those resolutions but we have not seen its obligations fulfilled by allowing the United Nations Special Commission to fulfill its inspections. Now, why doesn't he want the United Nations Special Commission to inspect sensitive sites? Why does he want to try and hide from the United Nations Special Commission? I am afraid it all looks pretty bad.

Journalist: Minister, Libya indicated that they would boycott Australian (inaudible) what's your response to that?

Mr Downer: My response to that is there are issues more important to us than whether Colonel El-Qadhafi wants to impose some restrictions on our trade with Libya and the issue that is more important to us is whether Saddam Hussein is going to continue to develop weapons of mass destruction. That is a profoundly important issue. That is an issue important not just to the peace and stability of the Middle East but to the peace and stability of the world. If Colonel El-Qadhafi wants to take the side of Saddam Hussein and obstruct our trade with Libya, we will live with that disadvantage.

Journalist: Are the SAS being compromised by statements from the Prime Minister that they're going to the Gulf?

Mr Downer: Well, General Baker has issued a press release on that matter and I don't have anything more to add to that. That story is clearly a complete beat up. Obviously their security has not been compromised, but General Baker is the person to approach about that.

Journalist: Can you confirm whether the SAS are in Kuwait?

Mr Downer: Well, I am not going to confirm that, you can ask General Baker and Mr McLachlan about details.

Journalist: Would it have been more appropriate for Australia to pursue and exhaust all diplomatic avenues before committing troops?

Mr Downer: Well, I think what we have done is in precisely the right way. We are doing our part to maximise pressure on Iraq, to ensure Iraq complies with the Security Council Resolutions and gets rid of programs designed to develop weapons of mass destruction. We believe that this is by far the most appropriate and most constructive way of going about this. It is regrettable that the situation has got to the point it has got to. But look, frankly, Saddam Hussein has been trying to obstruct the United Nations, he has been trying to obstruct the United Nations Special Council in particular for the last seven years and the seriousness of this issue just can not be overstated. It is a profoundly serious issue that this man has developed weapons of mass destruction and it would be irresponsible in the extreme for the international community to ignore that or to cave into Saddam Hussein in this environment. Australia can play a part, as a responsible component of the international community.

Journalist: So will committing troops give us more diplomatic leverage, is that what you are saying? It's wise to commit troops first, put them on alert and then intensify diplomatic efforts?

Mr Downer: Well, as you put it, the commitment of troops, the decision to do so should it come to that, is an important component of increasing diplomatic pressure on Iraq, there is no doubt about that. As I've said during the course of the last week, there are a lot more countries supporting the United States than is often realized. I think the United States is building up a strong body of support for its approach, and there is no doubt that the Iraqis are now beginning to understand the strength and resolve of the United States and its allies to ensure that there is an appropriate resolution of this problem. I don't think there is any doubt about that offer, if you can call it that, that was made by the Iraqis during the last 24 hours, whilst it is unacceptable, it's a sign that they are starting to recognise the seriousness of the situation.