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RSL President comments on withdrawal of troops from Iraq; travel warning is issued for Australian civilians in Iraq.

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Tuesday 13 April 2004

RSL President comments on withdrawal of troops from Iraq; travel warning is issued for Australian civilians in Iraq


MARK COLVIN: The hostage crisis i n Iraq has thrown the spotlight on the safety of the small group of Australian civilians working there. We'll hear from Baghdad shortly on today's developments, with eight Russians the latest to be kidnapped, in what looks like a pre-meditated raid on their house. 


The Government's travel advice says Australians in Iraq who are concerned about their safety should leave. 


Meanwhile the head of the RSL has become embroiled in a political tussle over whether the Government is telling the public all it should about Australia's ongoing military commitment in Iraq. 


Matt Brown reports from Canberra. 


MATT BROWN: The Australian Government's official advice is that Australians should not travel to Iraq and Australians in Iraq who are concerned for their security should depart. The security environment in Iraq remains extremely hazardous, as underscored by continuing terrorist bombings, kidnapping and other attacks against civilians. 


But the Prime Minister John Howard says that does not mean there should be an all-out Australian civilian withdrawal from Iraq. 


JOHN HOWARD: The advice we have to date is that there's not been any suggestion that people should withdraw and we're not advising them to. Obviously individual organisations take their own decisions, but I'm advised by our security people on those matters... I don't make an independent judgment myself. 


And the minister for Foreign Affairs, Alexander Downer, agrees - a message to leave if you are concerned for your security does not mean Australian civilians should pull out. 


ALEXANDER DOWNER: Well, our advice would be in the travel advisory. I mean the travel advisory is there for all to read. But on the other hand, I always make this point, I mean, Australians do visit places regardless of the travel advice reason.  


Obviously contractors go to Iraq because there are good... well, they might go to Iraq if they can find good commercial opportunities there, and there have been good commercial opportunities there for Australian companies. Iraq is economically important to Australia, and that's easy to overlook. 


MATT BROWN: Clear communication is one of the fundamental tenets of managing involvement any conflict, and today debate about the Government's military commitment to Iraq drew the head of the RSL into a wrangle with the Government about what it's telling the Australian people. 


BILL CREWS: It's a bit like drawing teeth, I guess. We're getting snippets here and there.  


MATT BROWN: RSL President retired Major General, Bill Crews started out expressing significant concerns. 


BILL CREWS: I think the Australian public is confused and they're probably a little apprehensive. 


MATT BROWN: Music to the ears of Opposition leader, Mark Latham. 


MARK LATHAM: Well, Labor's got an exit strategy, and I'm glad to hear that the RSL is calling on the Howard Government to develop a strategy. The truth is that Mr Howard got us into the mess in Iraq and he's got no way out. He's got an indefinite deployment; this is a lack of judgment. 


MATT BROWN: But the RSL chief rejects Labor's call for a withdrawal of Australian troops from Iraq by Christmas, and just before an interview with The World Today Bill Crews heard the details of the government's oft repeated description of Australia's role in Iraq from the minister for Foreign Affairs, Alexander Downer.  


ALEXANDER DOWNER: One of the jobs is to help train the new Iraqi army, so that obviously would take a fair bit of time. Secondly, we need to provide protection to our diplomats.  


We'll only cease to provide that protection when we don't need the protection any more, rather obviously, and thirdly, they are providing logistical support including assistance at the airport and with the air traffic control at Baghdad International Airport, but also logistical support in flying equipment in and out of Iraq.  


Now, there's that one level, so obviously I think people understand when those jobs no longer need to be done those people can withdraw. 


MATT BROWN: After hearing that Bill Crews changed his tone. 


BILL CREWS: Yes, the Foreign minister's statements are starting to give us the confidence that they know about when things might be satisfactory enough to withdraw the troops. 


REPORTER: But they haven't given any time frame at all. 


BILL CREWS: Well, no, we're not demanding time frames. I think it's very artificial and of course there's some apprehension that time frames create expectations. 


MATT BROWN: But at the Press Club in Canberra a couple of hours later, the Foreign minister was wondering why Bill Crews had started the day the way he did. 


ALEXANDER DOWNER: I don't recall him contacting me and asking me these questions myself, but he's always welcome to. I'm happy to talk it through with him, but I suppose he feels the same with East Timor, and the Solomon Islands and he hasn't raised those two examples with us... I don't know, he may have with my colleagues, he certainly hasn't raised that with me either. 


MATT BROWN: Iraq is clearly difficult territory, even for people of stature commenting on the home front. 


MARK COLVIN: Matt Brown.