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Defence Minister answers questions about Australian contribution in Iraq during visit to Baghdad.

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Wednesday 28 April 2004

Defence Minister answers questions about Australian contribution in Iraq during visit to Baghdad


MARK COLVIN: The Defence Minister, Senator Robert Hill, has touched down in Baghdad at the start of a two day visit. 


He'll be speaking later today to the Iraqi Defence Minister, and talking to Coalition commanders and representatives of the US-led civilian administration.  


Senator Hill will visit Australian troops and he's hoping to visit British forces in Basra and inspect Australian naval forces in the Arabian Gulf. 


He spoke just a short while ago to our Foreign Affairs Editor, Peter Cave, on the tarmac at Baghdad Airport, and Peter's first question to Senator Hill was about Mark Latham's comments today about Australia's contribution in Iraq being purely symbolic. 


ROBERT HILL: Well I thought it was offensive, the suggestion of what the ADF is doing is only symbolic. You know, to say that to these people who risk their lives every day. Just look at the aircraft behind us, take the humanitarian missions in here at night, no lights, literally dozens of those missions. There's nothing symbolic about that. It's not only risky but it's very important work and Australia's contribution is very much appreciated. 


PETER CAVE: Would you expect any change after your visit? 


ROBERT HILL: No. We constantly monitor our force to ensure that the tasks that they are addressing are the ones that we're most suited to contribute to and also where we can make a difference. Our decision was to provide niche capabilities in areas where we could be particularly useful because of our experiences and capabilities. That's still the way we're approaching this mission. So, since we've been here there have been some changes in the mix of the force, but the numbers have remained relatively steady. 


PETER CAVE: Will you be talking about sending in the Federal police to do some training either here or Amman? 


ROBERT HILL: I won't specifically, because that's not my responsibility. We've, you know, I've read that there have been, have been requests. If I pick up information that'll be useful to Senator Ellison in that regard, obviously I'll take that home. 


PETER CAVE: You'll be talking to the new interim Defence minister. How much say will he have in security after June 1, do you think? 


ROBERT HILL: Well that's one of the issues I'd like to discuss with him. How the interim ministries will operate after July the 1st, and what's going to happen in the next 12 months.  


I'm one who believes that it's very important to maintain the momentum towards full sovereignty for the Iraqi people, again, and these are steps that need to be taken to achieve that goal, and as you would have heard from Mr Brahimi's speech overnight, it is still very much work in progress and the composition of the new transitional government is still evolving according to what the Iraqis are saying to Mr Brahimi and what other parties are saying also. You know, I think it's important from our perspective to encourage this process, which I will be doing, but also, from our experience, if there's some useful input that we can provide, we'd want to do so. 


PETER CAVE: Mr Howard has said since he got back that Australian troops would move out when the country was stable. Is that the line that you'll be pushing? 


ROBERT HILL: Well he's been saying basically when the job is done. We ... 


PETER CAVE: Is the job done when the country's stable? 


ROBERT HILL: He said that certainly he expects our forces to be here until the middle of next year, but we're not going to put a exit date on because it's impossible to predict exactly what the position will then be and within that whether there's a continuing and important role for Australia to take.  


So that's the background which... that I come here with and as I said, basically, I want to get my own picture of what's happening on the ground and assessment of the contribution we're making and an assessment of what needs to be done in the future. 


PETER CAVE: The question was really, is stability the goal or full democracy? 


ROBERT HILL: Well as you know, in the last Security Council resolution, it urged the international community to remain here militarily until full sovereignty had been passed to the Iraqi people. Well that's not expected to happen until the end of next year. You know, that is not a dictate to us but there's a guidance being given to the international community as a whole.  


What we've said is that we want to make a contribution until we assess that the job is done, and our assessment at the moment is that that will mean we will continue to need forces on the ground here at least up until the middle of next year. But we monitor it on an ongoing basis. 


MARK COLVIN: Senator Robert Hill on the tarmac at Baghdad Airport with our Foreign Affairs Editor Peter Cave.