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Minister discusses Iraq - troop withdrawal and the interim government.



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TRANSCRIPT SENATOR THE HON ROBERT HILL Minister for Defence Leader of the Government in the Senate

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INTERVIEW WITH TERRY LANE

Radio National’s the National Interest program

12:05pm, Sunday, 27 June 2004

E&oe________________________________________________________________________Iraq

PRESENTER:

Well, as I said, this week an interim government takes control in Iraq to prepare the way for national elections early next year. At the moment, there are about 850 Australian military persons in Iraq and this includes about three hundred on board the HMAS Melbourne, which I suppose you might say is not, strictly speaking, in Iraq. Ninety of the other 150 ... other 550 are guards at the Australian embassy. There are about 14,000 American military persons in Iraq so Australians make up, at the moment, a very small portion of the occupying Army. And with me to talk about their role, and when the job will be finished, is Defence Minister Senator Robert Hill. Senator Hill, good afternoon.

SENATOR ROBERT HILL:

Yes, good afternoon, Terry.

PRESENTER:

We'd better agree on terminology first of all. I referred to the American forces as an army of occupation. How does the government prefer to describe it?

HILL:

The ... well, Britain and the United States are occupying powers under the UN Security Council resolution, and the Security Council resolution requests a multi-national force to support them in their task leading to transfer to the interim government, so ... and that multi-national force consists of some thirty-two different countries at the moment.

PRESENTER:

So it is fair enough to describe it as an army of occupation?

SENATOR HILL:

Well, I haven't ... I don't know if that's technically the correct description because ... but I don't think it matters much because they are supporting the occupying powers consistent with the resolution of the UN Security Council.

PRESENTER:

You say it's not important but I just noticed the results of a Gallup poll taken in Iraq a couple of months ago and seventy-one per cent of respondents say that they

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see the Americans as occupiers and not liberators. It's not really just a semantic distinction, it seems to me.

SENATOR HILL:

Well, I was more concerned with the technical correctness but I don't ... I really ... you know, I don't want to spend your program quibbling over detail but basically, Britain and the United States are occupying powers and there is a multi-national force comprising contributions from thirty-two counties that is supporting them and operating pursuant to a UN Security Council resolution.

PRESENTER:

Now, the soldiers who were fired on this weekend, what are they doing at the moment?

SENATOR HILL:

The Australian soldiers?

PRESENTER:

Yes.

SENATOR HILL:

They are training the new Iraqi army.

PRESENTER:

And in what part of the country? In Mosul, the news reports say.

SENATOR HILL:

It's near Mosul, yes.

PRESENTER:

Right.

SENATOR HILL:

So we've provided some trainers. Other countries provided trainers as well. We're training the army and we're also down south at Umm Qasr training their new navy.

PRESENTER:

Given the miniscule size of the Australian contribution to the occupying forces, does it really matter whether they stay or come home?

SENATOR HILL:

Well I don’t think it’s a miniscule size, every individual is important and every individual is making an important contribution to the new Iraq and to the Iraqi people. If a small group left, that in itself mightn't effect the outcome but in terms of wanting to support the Security Council resolution and provide a broad multi-national contribution towards the outcome of a free Iraq and Iraqi elections and the benefits that can follow to the Iraqi people, I think it's very important.

PRESENTER:

Well, it's become an important political issue in Australia, the argument over the significance of the presence of Australians in Iraq, but when it's so few, it does seem to be symbolic rather than real.

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SENATOR HILL:

Well, look, I've said it's not symbolic to the individuals concerned and it's not symbolic to those who are benefiting from it. We've chosen a range of niche areas where we believe we can bring particular expertise, particular value so we've talked about our contribution to training the armed forces of Iraq, that institution which will be critically important to sustaining the new Iraq.

Our other contributions are in areas such as some air traffic controllers at Baghdad International Airport where we've been since the major combat phase and basically have been responsible for keeping that airport open. And I can go through the range of other functions that we are fulfilling but they're all important and if we weren't doing it, either somebody else would have to fill that gap or alternatively, it wouldn't be filled at all which would make it even harder for the Iraqi people.

PRESENTER:

Has the Australian government had any say in the selection of the interim Iraqi government?

SENATOR HILL:

No direct say, no. Basically, there was a process of consultation between the United States, through Mr Brahimi in particular, the governing ... the Iraqi governing council, the occupying powers. But in the end, it was the Iraqi governing council, the Iraqi people themselves that seemed to tip the balance in favour of those who have been appointed.

PRESENTER:

Mr Brahimi, we should say, is the United Nations representative.

SENATOR HILL:

Yes, he ...

PRESENTER:

In Iraq.

SENATOR HILL:

He did an exceptionally good job in Afghanistan and for that (laughs), he's now in Iraq seeking to do the same thing.

PRESENTER:

Well, he says that the head of the occupying power, Mr Bremer, is - and these are his words - the dictator of Iraq. He has the money, he has the signature, nothing happens without his agreement. Now, if that's true, it makes the interim government look pretty impotent and non-representative.

SENATOR HILL:

Well, Mr Bremer heads up the Coalition Provisional Authority which is the ... what's been, in effect, the de facto government, the government of the occupying powers and it will cease to be at the end of this month and power is transferred then to the Iraqi interim government which is sovereign but will still need the support of the international community in order to govern.

PRESENTER:

When you say it's sovereign, there are two questions that are raised by that. One is its legitimacy, now there has been a question raised, for instance, about the

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legitimacy of the interim prime minister, Mr Iyad Allawi, who is considered in Iraqi to be a CIA agent, an MI6 agent and somehow or other, involved even in the security apparatus of Saddam Hussein and he 's the person who is said to be the source of the furphy that weapons of mass destruction would be launched within forty-five minutes. Now, what sort of legitimacy does a person like that have when he's appointed as prime minister by the occupying power?

SENATOR HILL:

Well, it's true that he was once a Baathist but then he fought against Saddam Hussein. And what is his legitimacy? His legitimacy is the endorsement of the international community through the United Nations Security Council.

PRESENTER:

That doesn't really count, does it? His legitimacy depends on the approval of the Iraqi people, surely?

SENATOR HILL:

The ... well, I understand that argument but he is, at the moment, endorsed as the interim prime minister by the international community through the Security Council and his responsibility will be, in part, to contribute to an elective process which will give the opportunity for the Iraqi people next January to choose their own political leaders.

PRESENTER:

Well, the next question after the legitimacy of the interim government - and I mean in the eyes of the Iraqi people, not in the eyes of the United Nations or the United States ...

SENATOR HILL:

Well, ultimately we want the Iraqi people to choose their own leadership, that's what this process is all about, but ... and what will next happen will be a national convention which will broaden the political contribution in Iraq, hopefully in July, and the UN will be working with the interim government towards elections, and that's a massive process in itself, but the electoral commission's appointed, the method of elections is being determined, a lot to be done.

But the goal is to hold national elections in January of next year and from that, the elected body will determine a constitution and so we go through the processes which will lead, by the end of next year, to a government that is solely elected by the Iraqi people, operating under a constitution determined by the Iraqi people.

PRESENTER:

Well, let's take this in those two stages. First of all, there's an interim government from now until some time early next year. What power does it have? Does it have the power to say - and this is what some people in Iraq have said, or asked this question - does it have the power to say to the occupying forces, go away?

SENATOR HILL:

Technically it does, yes.

PRESENTER:

What would happen if it did?

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SENATOR HILL:

Well, I think the occupying forces have said that they would only remain if requested by the interim government but it's somewhat academic because the interim government has made it quite clear that it wants the Iraq ... it wants to multi-national force to remain to assist it while it continues to train and develop its own armed forces and other security elements, the police and so forth. But technically, it's a sovereign government in those terms.

PRESENTER:

Then the next question that is being asked is, after a general election next year, supposing, as is highly likely, the Shiia majority get control of the Iraqi parliament and in ... as a de facto declaration, turn Iraqi into an Islamic theocracy, what will be the attitude of the occupying forces?

SENATOR HILL:

Well, there won't be occupying forces after the first of July this year but the Iraqi people will determine what they want for their own future.

PRESENTER:

Can I ...

SENATOR HILL:

It was like ... I'll just finish that.

PRESENTER:

Yeah.

SENATOR HILL:

There is likely to be a Shiia parliamentary majority because the Shiaa are the largest group. However, the Shiia and other Iraqis understand that for ... to maintain stability within their country, there's got to be a constitutional structure that allows a fair say for the various interests, whether they be the Sunni interest, the Kurds, the Shiia or the tribal interests or so many interests in such a complex political situation, but they are aware of that more than anybody else.

PRESENTER:

I don't understand the point that you are making, that after July the first there will not be an occupying army. What will it be called after July the first?

SENATOR HILL:

Well, it's not ... there is not an occupying power after July the first. There is an interim sovereign government, interim Iraqi government. The occupation ceases on July the first.

PRESENTER:

Well, Mr Brahimi, to whom we've referred before, says that that is, in effect, a legal fiction. The Americans will still be running the country.

SENATOR HILL:

Well, it's ... when you say it's a legal fiction, if he's saying that while sovereign, the new Iraqi government would have enormous difficulty in maintaining security and stability without an international presence, then I agree with that. They say that themselves but ... and the largest part of that international presence obviously is the United States.

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PRESENTER:

Now Senator Hill, your government's position has been that the ...

SENATOR HILL:

Our government, actually.

PRESENTER:

Our government?

SENATOR HILL:

The Australian government.

PRESENTER:

(Laughs) Half the population didn't vote for the government and more than half the population didn't want to be part of an invasion of Iraq.

SENATOR HILL:

Well, even when it's Labor, I refer to it as our government.

PRESENTER:

Well, we'll ...

SENATOR HILL:

Sorry, go on.

PRESENTER:

We'll have to let people decide that for themselves. But, still, the government's position ...

SENATOR HILL:

Yeah.

PRESENTER:

... - we'll neutralise it - is that the Australian forces will come home when the job is done, but how will we know when the job is done? After all, the job was stated at the outset to be to deprive Saddam Hussein of weapons of mass destruction, and there aren't any, or to sever his links with Al Qaeda. And one of the ironies of the destabilisation of Iraq is that Al Qaeda is now active in Iraq when it wasn't before, so what is the job and how will we know when it's done?

SENATOR HILL:

Well, that will be determined by the government of the day, and basically, in broad terms, as we see it, it's basically for ... so long as we're playing what we see as an important role in assisting the Iraqi people to determine their own destiny. So the niche areas that I've spoken to you about, and I could talk about others, the

Hercules transport aircraft, for example, that have flown hundreds and hundreds of humanitarian missions and still continues to do so every week.

We think we're playing a very important part in allowing the new Iraq to evolve and Iraqi people to have a future as they choose it, and you know, I'm for one pleased to see that Australia's prepared to make a contribution to that goal.

PRESENTER:

So ... I should just finish on this, the job is done when a representative Iraqi government says it's done?

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SENATOR HILL:

Well, no, if the representative Iraqi government said they didn't want our assistance, we would say the job is done, but assuming they will continue to ask us to assist, which they will for some time, then it's done when ... in terms of an Australian government decision.

And as I said, what we want to do is to help the new Iraqi government to establish itself, to get through this democratic process, to build its institutions, it'll be important for its long term security. To help it economically, we've helped set up the agricultural ministries for example, we've helped set up the health ministry. We're helping set up the defence ministry, actually. Whilst we're doing these important things that are going to give Iraqi a chance for the future, then we would like to see Australia making a contribution.

PRESENTER:

Senator Hill, thank you very much for your time.

SENATOR HILL:

Thank you.

PRESENTER:

Senator Robert Hill, the Defence Minister.

END