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Prime Minister discusses his trip to Iraq.



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PRIME MINISTER

27 April 2004

TRANSCRIPT OF THE PRIME MINISTER THE HON JOHN HOWARD MP INTERVIEW WITH JOHN LAWS, RADIO 2UE

Subjects: Iraq visit

E&OE…………………………………………………………………………………….

LAWS:

Prime Minister, good morning and welcome back again.

PRIME MINISTER:

Thank you, John. Good morning.

LAWS:

Not that you were gone all that long. It must have been pretty exhausting that.

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes, it was very quick, but I wanted to go and Anzac Day seemed the right time more than any other to go. And I’m very pleased I did. It was an opportunity to thank the men and women there for what they’re doing and also to meet the leaders of the Iraqi governing council, the two American generals Abi Zaid, Sanchez and also Paul Bremer and talk to our own people so it was a lightening visit well spent and I have an even better knowledge of things now than I had before I went and I’m even more determined that we should continue to do the task we’ve been given and to see it through until the circumstances are there for the men and women to come home.

LAWS:

All the ladies want to know what was Saddam’s palace like?

www.pm.gov.au

PRIME MINISTER:

Very over the top, disgusting, opulent, all of those things.

LAWS:

Disgusting and opulent.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, given the poverty of the people, yes.

LAWS:

Yes, well that’s… I mean it’s immoral.

PRIME MINISTER:

I mean, that’s the point. We’ve seem to have lost sight and an Australian journalist said to me that the lake in one of the palaces is alleged to have at its bottom the remains of many of the victims of Uday Hussein’s torture and execution practices.

LAWS:

How do you like being called the wicked Prime Minister?

PRIME MINISTER:

Oh, I’m unmoved by that. I’ve been called everything in my political career.

LAWS:

Yeah, well I don’t think you’ve ever been called wicked and…

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes, I have. I can assure you I have.

LAWS:

Really? I can think of all sorts of labels that might have suited you, wicked wouldn’t be one of them however. Anyway, that’s what you’re known as to some al-Qaeda operative, so there you are. How much effort went into the planning of a trip like that?

PRIME MINISTER:

Quite a lot. I decided about, I guess, three or four weeks ago that I’d like to go and a lot of work went into planning and I’m very grateful that it was done very well. I also record my thanks to those members of the media and their management who knew on Friday that this was happening, but nonetheless for understandable security considerations kept an embargo on it. I thank them for that, they did the right thing.

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LAWS:

I’ve been listening to what you’ve had to say. Are you softening us up a little bit for news that a small increase in troops might become necessary?

PRIME MINISTER:

I’m openly saying that some small adjustment at the margin might happen, it won’t certainly happen. I don’t want a situation that if we were to add a few, and I mean a very few, people would say - ah, there you are, he’s broken his promise not to send any more troops. I can definitely say we won’t be adding hundreds, I can definitely say that we’re not going to have a capacity to put more regular soldiers on the ground, we just don’t have that and I’ve made that clear to the Americans and the British all along, it goes back to the beginning of last year. But it could be that we might be able in one area to provide an additional niche capacity and that could well occur at a time when some capacity in another area is no longer needed and I just want to lay that out now so that if it does happen in the future people won’t accuse me of bad faith.

LAWS:

How many is a small increase?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I don’t know because we haven’t decided on it.

LAWS:

Okay.

PRIME MINISTER:

Look, we’ve got a few of them, a hundred air traffic control people, some of them may find that their job is completed at some time in the not too distant future and you could decide that there’s something else of an equivalent or roughly equivalent order that we could do. So I say if we end up as a consequence of that of having ten or twenty or thirty more people somewhere, I don’t want anybody running around saying, oh there he’s gone back on what he said. That’s what I’m trying to say.

LAWS:

Okay, when you committed our troops originally, you and I talked the next day, you said to me it would be months not years.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, that was my expectation…

LAWS:

Then.

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PRIME MINISTER:

Yes, it was. It was the expectation of many people and the post conflict stage has not worked out as well as we hoped and believed at the time and I don’t mind saying that and it was in that context that I made that observation. That didn’t represent some kind of commitment. It was a reasonable expectation and observation at the time and I would have said that. I would also have said around the same time on numerous occasions that the length of time that our forces would be there would be determined by the circumstances on the ground.

LAWS:

Yeah. Did you give any thought to inviting Mark Latham? I don’t for a minute think it would have been necessary, he didn’t even want the troops to be there. But did that…

PRIME MINISTER:

No, no, it didn’t occur to me because you don’t… it’s not normal in this country if the Prime Minister does something which is part of his job to take the Opposition Leader along. I mean, it’s rather different on ceremonial occasions. I notice there was some reference made to the fact that John Hewson accompanied Bob Hawke to the 75th anniversary of the landing at Gallipoli, well that was a major celebratory event. I invited Simon Crean to go with me to London for the dedication of the War Memorial. I arranged for him, along as well as myself to lay a wreath. I made sure that he was on the platform with Tony Blair and myself, he was extended every courtesy because that was an official commemoration. But when I’ve visited troops in the past, in Timor or in the Solomon Islands I haven’t invited the Opposition Leader. If Mark Latham wants to go anywhere which is appropriate as Opposition Leader, he will have all the curtesies and facilitation that the Government can make available. But in all of the circumstances, frankly it didn’t occur to me, it wouldn’t have been appropriate and it wouldn’t have been in accordance with past practice. And, as you rightly say, of course, he didn’t want them there in the first place. But that is a separate matter, I’m not suggesting that he’s disrespectful to our troops, I’m not arguing that at all, I would never argue that of any Labor leader.

LAWS:

I’ve got to say that he was very respectful to those who were critical of you for not inviting him. I thought he handled it pretty well. It was that silly Bob Brown opening his mouth.

PRIME MINISTER:

Yeah, well, anyway that’s the position and those who argue that I should have they just don’t understand…

LAWS:

No they don’t.

PRIME MINISTER:

… the nature of and the past practice of these things.

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LAWS:

With our federal police already working in the Solomons, can we afford, well obviously we can or you wouldn’t have said we would, afford to send more people to Iraq?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, the position, and that’s a fair comment, the position with the police I’ve ascertained, at the end of last year there was an approach made, I think that we sent a significant number and we indicated at the time that wasn’t possible. I understand at a departmental level there’s been some talk of further provision more recently. I… it hasn’t been brought to my attention and we’d have a look at it. But I’m a little bit sceptical about our capacity to provide any more police.

LAWS:

Okay. Tony Blair has suggested on more than one occasion this could be years, are we prepared to stay for years?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, we will stay until the job is done. I’m not going to, for very understandable reasons, I’m not going to get into a business of predicting how long that would be. Now…

LAWS:

But if it years, will we stay?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, we will stay until the job is done.

LAWS:

Okay, so we’ll stay for years if necessary.

PRIME MINISTER:

We’ll stay until the job is done. I mean, John, you know this game. I’m determined that we will do the job. I’m equally though, like all other Australians, determined that once the job is done that our men and women should come home and the reason for that is that it’s dangerous. And I don’t want our men and women exposed to danger any longer than is necessary.

LAWS:

Did you feel danger in the environment?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I didn’t really…

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LAWS:

I mean, I’m not asking you did you feel frightened. But did you feel the situation was dangerous?

PRIME MINISTER:

There was certainly… there was an atmosphere of danger, of course. The very fact that you’re invited to put bullet proof vests on and the helmets and all those sorts of things and the methodology is they are really fantastic those blokes who fly those C130’s the way they can throw such (inaudible) aircraft around, they seem to fly them like fighters. But they’re very… the whole atmosphere obviously is more tense I think than it was six months ago and in the conversations with the troops you get that impression. But their morale is very good, I don’t think there’s any doubt about that. They’re in great shape, they’re doing a fantastic job.

LAWS:

Yeah, I also know that they’re very highly regarded by the other people.

PRIME MINISTER:

There is no doubt about that. The Anzac service, the dawn service was attended by General Sanchez who’s the American field commander and by General McColl who’s the senior British officer and they were both very complimentary about what our fellows were doing. And the nice touch of course was that there was an address given at the dawn service by a Turkish general in accordance with the Anzac tradition that we have observed in this country from the very beginning and extending great respect to our Turkish foes on Gallipoli and I thought that particularly the service taken place in Islamic country I thought it was wonderful that that happened.

LAWS:

Yeah, I agree. That would be very moving. Do you feel we’re closer to getting the job done or is it just as far away as it’s ever been?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I think it is very difficult at present. We’re very much, what some people would describe, as a tilting point. If we can win in different ways, both militarily and politically the next few months, then I’m very optimistic. But if we don’t, it will go on for longer. And winning the next few months very much means transferring authority to a credible Iraqi provisional government. There’s no doubt from all the people I talk to and all the information I get, the majority of the Iraqi people want a democratic future. And those who are conducting the insurgency and the terrorist attacks want to stop that happening and the closer the 30th of June gets, the more determined the (inaudible) and others are to stop it happening.

LAWS:

Will there be anything other than symbolism behind this hand over on June 30?

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PRIME MINISTER:

Yes, there’ll be more than symbolism. I’m not suggesting that you’ll go immediately to an unconditional Iraqi authority, but they are putting a lot of Iraqis in charge of not only departments but also at a ministerial level and the two I met a couple of days ago were both very impressive. Their national security adviser, a moderate Shi-ite, a doctor, an extremely articulate intelligent man who made it very clear to me he had a long record of opposing the Saddam Hussein regime, that the majority of the Iraqis did want freedom. He has a respected background, I can’t honestly say that about all of them.

LAWS:

No.

PRIME MINISTER:

I don’t argue for a moment that is the case, some of them don’t come to the thing with clean hands, but that is the nature of a country that’s had the history that Iraq’s had. But we do owe it to them and, of course, we owe it to ourselves and particularly in the case of the Americans who’ve carried a heavier burden and lost, tragically lost 700 of their citizens already, they owe it to themselves to make a good job of the transfer. But it won’t be easy. The Americans, they don’t want to stay any longer than…

LAWS:

No, who would?

PRIME MINISTER:

They don’t and they understand, as I do and as Tony Blair does, that the Iraqis want to run their own lives. But there’s… nobody wants to go back to the Saddam Hussein days and the great majority of them remain eternally grateful that he’s gone and why wouldn’t they? But they want to run their own country and it’s a difficult mix. They’ll have to, in my view, have a federal system of government because the differences between the Sunni and the Shiite and of course the Kurds is (inaudible) but the hopeful sign is that the emerging authority of an Iraqi Government will include all of those elements. The chairman of the interim governing council who I met was a Kurd and that kind of involvement by Kurds in the past would have been unthinkable.

LAWS:

Do you think that these people would have the ability to be able to quell these, obviously, ongoing internal militia battles?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, militarily and from a police point of view at the moment, no.

LAWS:

No.

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PRIME MINISTER:

They don’t and that’s why something like training the Iraqi army in which Australians are directly involved is so important and that’s why it’s silly of the Government’s critics to say that those trainers for example are there as an act of symbolism, they’re not. They’re doing really live, important, immediate work. The faster we can get trained Iraqi police and military personnel effectively on the job the sooner we can all go.

LAWS:

Yeah, sooner the better. Okay, Prime Minister, I’m glad you’re back safely.

PRIME MINISTER:

Thank you.

LAWS:

And nice to talk to you.

PRIME MINISTER:

Thank you, John.

LAWS:

Bye.

PRIME MINISTER:

Bye.

[ends]