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Minister for Foreign Affairs discusses the possibility of war with Iraq.

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E and OE

18 March 2003

Minister for Foreign Affairs, Alexander Downer

3AW - Interview with Neil Mitchell

MITCHELL: Are we at war?

DOWNER: Well it remains to be seen what will happen over the next 24 hours or so, or it might be 48. Once the President has made his statement and issued his ultimatum, I think in those 48 hours we'll see whether Saddam Hussein decides that it's best for him and for his people for him to stand down and to go into exile and to allow (tape ends)

MITCHELL: (tape resumes)... deadline?

DOWNER: I expect a 48 hour deadline. I spoke to Colin Powell in the middle of the night and he was saying he thought it would be 48 hours, but the President hadn't finally decided. So we just have to wait and see, you know it might be 36, it might be 72, we just don't know. But we'll find out in a minute

MITCHELL: Do you know as yet what Australia's role will be?

DOWNER: In terms of there being military action yes we do, but that of course is an operational matter. I think listeners would understand if I left any discussions about operational matters for the Defence Force. But we would have a significant role to play. Although remember Australia is only deploying something like 2000 troops out of nearly 300,000 so it's a fairly small component of the total effort

MITCHELL: It is still a dangerous role is it not?

DOWNER: It is. Oh no, there is no question about it, it will be dangerous. And our hearts are very much I know I speak on behalf of everybody listening, our hearts very much go out to the personnel in the Defence Force. And I just would say this, as the Prime Minister said. If there are people that disagree with the Government's decision, and there'll be people who do, please take it out on the Government, don't take it out on our soldiers, sailors and airmen and women

MITCHELL: Are any Australians still in Iraq?

DOWNER: Yes, there are some. The last count I had, there were about 37 Australians who were working with United Nations agencies in the northern part of Iraq. They're basically humanitarian agencies. Now those UN agencies will be evacuating. There are no UN, Australian UN inspectors in Iraq at the moment. They happen to be in Cyprus, which is the staging post. And there are 6 human shields still left in Iraq, as well as I think a small number of journalists

MITCHELL: OK, so you can't force them out, you're just telling them to get out?

DOWNER: Yes, you can't, obviously we can't force them out. But they really should leave. I think with the 37, the UN personnel they will certainly leave in the next day or so. I just don't know what the human shields are going to do. I mean a lot of them have left when they've found that cooperation with the regime of Saddam Hussein wasn't quite what they had hoped. But there are still 6 of them left. They would be well advised to leave now. Journalists, that's a difficult question. Our advice is that they should leave, because journalists like others could be held hostage by the Iraqi regime. There are obviously on the ground dangers there, but in the end I think their news organisations will probably make those judgements.

MITCHELL: Do you anticipate a long war?

DOWNER: No I don't anticipate a long war. We hope that it, obviously hope, everybody would hope, but hope that it will be over very quickly. But I wouldn't expect it to go on for months, and months no.

MITCHELL: Thank you for speaking to us. Was there a sense of history unfolding within the Cabinet today?

DOWNER: Yes, it certainly was. I think all of us you know had a sense of the gravity of the events and the decisions that we were taking. And even though we'd predeployed, we'd not made the decision to participate in a war against Iraq until today, and yeah you know you think about the person, the personal side of it all. What it means for our men and women in the Defence Force over there, and the risks that are associated with it. But the Australian Defence Forces have shown themselves to be extraordinarily efficient, and brave and effective over many generations, and I don't think there's any doubt about the quality of the people we have over there.

MITCHELL: Do you think the public, now that we are, or once we get into the conflict, will come behind the decision?

DOWNER: They're more likely to I think. I mean I think the public were right to hope that the UN itself would be able to do the job. I mean that's certainly my view, I think all of us probably feel terribly let down by the decision by France to say it would veto any new resolution regardless of what that resolution was. It made in the end the diplomatic route impossible to continue to pursue. That came as a surprise to me, I didn't think the French would do that. But bearing in mind they did, I think probably all of us feel we are now left with a choice of either disarming Saddam Hussein militarily, or else giving him a gigantic win and keeping his weapons, and continuing to be the risk and danger he is to the world.

MITCHELL: Simon Crean doesn't view it that way. He says if he becomes Prime Minister during the action, he'd call the troops back. He says the Prime Minister is treating the public with contempt, and the troops dishonourably.

DOWNER: Well obviously we don't agree with Mr Crean. And at the end of the day we want to see Saddam Hussein disarmed. We believe that unfortunately this is the only alternative we're left with now. That if we were all to back off, the Americans, the British, Australia, the other countries that are supporting the coalition, we were all to walk away from this, then that would have enormous long term consequences for global security. Security Council resolutions

of the UN would not be upheld any longer. We would find the rogue states would be given an incentive to continue with their bad behaviour. It would be a risk of exacerbation, a problem of terrorism. I mean you just have to be tough about this. I'm sorry when there are people who disagree with us, and that always happens in politics. I'm sorry about that, but we have to do what we judge to be in the best interests of the country.

MITCHELL: Mr Downer thank you for speaking to us.