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Foreign Minister comments on his visit to the United States; the Iraq War; the United Nations; and government in Iraq after the war.

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E and OE

4 April 2003

Minister for Foreign Affairs, Alexander Downer

2UE - Interview with Steve Price

STEVE PRICE: The bombing continues, although not at the same rate that it was 24 hours ago. While all this is happening there is a lot of diplomatic activity going on, working out exactly what sort of place Iraq is going to be after the war has been completed. A lot of that activity is taking place in New York, where our Foreign Affairs Minister, Alexander Downer, has just come from a meeting with a UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. He's on his way to the airport, presumably on his way back home - the Foreign Minister. Thanks for your time, Minister.

ALEXANDER DOWNER: It's a pleasure, Steve.

STEVE PRICE: Are things moving very quickly, very rapidly? What can you tell us of what you know of what's happening right on the ground in Baghdad right now?

ALEXANDER DOWNER: I don't have anything to add to what you've said. I've heard that Baghdad airport has fallen, so-called Saddam Hussein International Airport. The thing is to be a bit cautious here - they've obviously made enormous progress in the last two or three days. And I think the campaign is going extraordinary well. But there is still the rest of the city to take, and there are some Iraqi forces beyond Baghdad, up towards the north. So there is a lot more work to be done, and we shouldn't be sort of breaking open the champagne yet.

STEVE PRICE: You're in a unique position to give us a bit of an insight into the relationship between the UN and the US at the moment. How would you describe it?

ALEXANDER DOWNER: I think it's improving. I think pragmatism is beginning to sort of seep through on both sides. We've been saying to the Americans for the last couple of days, "Look, it's terribly important you involve the UN in the reconstruction of Iraq. You can't really do this easily without the UN. It would be more expensive for you and it won't get the international legitimacy that it will get if you have some UN involvement." On the UN side, they're sitting waiting a bit to see what the Security Council comes up with, and hoping that the Security Council, for a change, be a bit more united in addressing some of the post- conflict issues. But Kofi Annan told me two things. One is that the UN is willing and ready to be involved. But, secondly what the UN doesn't want to do is take over the whole of Iraq in the way that it took over the whole of East Timor in 1999.

STEVE PRICE: So do you think the UN would be happy if the Americans had the pivotal roles in Iraqi, in Baghdad, including the role of administrator? You're saying the UN doesn't want to do that?

ALEXANDER DOWNER: No, the UN doesn't want to be the administrator of Iraq. Look, it

accepts that the US will initially be the administrator. There'll be the establishment of what's called an Iraqi interim administration. This will start off by being mainly foreigners, but in a - and presumably predominantly Americans, though not necessarily exclusively - but then rather quickly there'll be a move towards putting Iraqis in charge of different areas of government. In fact, that will be done as quickly as possible. So you'll have a point where the Iraq interim administration under American guidance will nevertheless be increasingly indigenised. But over and above that there has to be a new local Iraqi government. They've got to establish their own government. The Americans don't want to stay there any longer than they have to. And the UN will no doubt be involved one way or another in that process of helping to put together a long-term Iraqi government structure. And obviously the coalition partners will be involved in that as well.

STEVE PRICE: Have you and the Prime Minister talked about that? And what role would there be for Australia, do you think?

ALEXANDER DOWNER: In terms of putting together the long-term structure, we'd obviously be able to give a fair bit of advice because we have quite a lot of experience - for example, more recently in East Timor, not just in terms of our own constitution, but the work we did in East Timor in helping to build up a government there, and a structure in East Timor. But in the short term, we've said that very specifically we're prepared to assist Iraq in the area of agriculture, which is a sector we have particular expertise in.

STEVE PRICE: You're talking about agriculture. Of course, our wheat trade there was very pivotal before this all started, wasn't it?

ALEXANDER DOWNER: Yes, that's right. Well, we're still in the process - or very close to unloading more wheat in Iraq. That wheat was, of course, a gift from the Australian people - part of our aid program for Iraq. But we do have a number of other wheat contracts, which have been entered into by the UN - an oil-for-food program. So we'll be continuing to export wheat to Iraq. But we do have also some long-term experience of dry land farming, not just in Australia, but in Iraq itself. So there's quite a lot of assistance, I think, we can give in the area of agriculture.

STEVE PRICE: Just finally, did you get any sense in your talks there on aid and the situation for getting aid straight into Iraq? Is it sitting there ready on the borders ready to go in - and do you think there's enough?

ALEXANDER DOWNER: Well, that's quite a complicated question. First of all in terms of food - there is plenty of wheat that's been ordered and there's money available to pay for that. And we hope that these first two ships - the Australian ships - will be able to deliver their wheat within the next few days. And I'm really hoping that the first of the Australian ships will get to Iraq in the next day or two. So I think the food situation's likely to be OK, depending on how quickly the war ends. But I think there shouldn't be too many problems with food. People are estimated by the UN to have enough food to last them in Iraq until the end of the month. So, hopefully the war will be well and truly finished by then. We don't know, though. The second thing is that things like medicines and the like - there are great shortages of those in Iraq and have been, of course, since before the war. And the UN has set up a fund - which is called a flash appeal. And it has $1.2 billion in it - US dollars - so about $2 billion Australian in it. So it's got quite a lot of money in it. And they should be able to provide assistance pretty quickly.

STEVE PRICE: Just a final couple of questions. Do you think Saddam Hussein is still alive?

And the Iraqis have not yet used any chemical or biological weapons - thank God! Does that indicate to you that they don't exist?

ALEXANDER DOWNER: No, not at all. I'm sure they do exist. I certainly think the chemical and probably and biological weapons exist. I don’t think there's any doubt about that. I'm not surprised they haven't used them so far. But, of course, as the noose tightens on Baghdad, the risk of them using chemical weapons increases all the time. But we don't know whether Saddam Hussein is dead or alive. It's a great debate in the intelligence community - in ours, the Americans, and the British intelligence community. There are those who passionately believe he's dead. I'm a bit more on the alive side of the debate, to tell you the truth - but we're not really sure.