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Defence Minister visits troops in Iraq; shadow minister wants Iraq to control its own security; defence analysts are uncertain for how much longer troops will stay.

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Tuesday 7 March 2006

Defence Minister visits troops in Iraq; shadow minister wants Iraq to control its own security; defence analysts are uncertain for how much longer troo ps will stay


MARK COLVIN: The Federal Opposition has called on the Government to be frank with the Australian people about its plans for the 460 soldiers stationed in southern Iraq. 


The Defence Minister, Brendan Nelson, in a lightning visit to the task g
roup of Australian troops, said it was likely that the soldiers would continue to train Iraq's new army and provide security once Japanese engineers were withdrawn. 


Dr Nelson's confirmed that he expects Australians to stay on in Iraq until well into next year. 


Labor says this open-ended commitment is worrying. 


From Canberra, Alexandra Kirk reports. 


ALEXANDRA KIRK: Dr Brendan Nelson's four-hour visit wasn't confirmed until after he'd safely left Iraq. 


He met Australian troops and held talks with Coalition and Iraqi officials, visiting servicemen and women at Camp Smitty in the Al Muthanna province in southern Iraq, he thanked them for the work they do and acknowledged the warm welcome he'd received.  


BRENDAN NELSON: Our servicemen and women are the only group of people I've ever met that actually like to see politicians.  


(Sound of laughter) 


ALEXANDRA KIRK: But the serious message emerging from the brief visit is that Australia's military commitment in Iraq will extend well into next year. 


BRENDAN NELSON: We've got quite a way to go yet in Al Muthanna and indeed in Iraq, but this is something of which you all and your families can be very, very proud. 


ALEXANDRA KIRK: The current deployment, protecting Japanese engineers doing reconstruction work, was due to leave Al Muthanna around the middle of this year. But it's emerged the Japanese may stay longer and Dr Nelson says the Government is determined to "see it through". 


As to where Australian troops will be and what they'll be doing is yet to be decided. The Defence Minister says Australia's negotiating the details with key allies - Britain, Iraq, the US and Italy. 


But the Opposition thinks this current deployment should be the last, and the troops brought home at the end of their current rotation in May. 


Defence Spokesman Robert McClelland says the Government's open-ended and open chequebook approach to Iraq is wrong and worrying. He wants the Government to explain to voters and to the troops what the precise mission is. 


ROBERT MCCLELLAND: We're very concerned that the Government seems to be simply drifting along with the tide, in the context where quite clearly any sensible objective observer would say there is some very worrying signs of not only sectarian violence occurring throughout the community, but sectarian bitterness infecting the actual administration.  


That administration needs to be told, listen, you don't have an open chequebook, open-ended commitment, the time has come for you to make appropriate compromises to get your own house in order and take responsibility for your own security. 


ALEXANDRA KIRK: However, Dr Alan Dupont from the Lowy Institute for International Policy says Australia should stay the course in Iraq. 


ALAN DUPONT: The Australian force there in Al Muthanna province is doing a pretty good job in terms of training up the Iraqis. We are deriving a fair bit of political kudos from being there in terms of our Coalition allies, particularly the Americans and the British, for relatively little investment. And it would be, in my view, premature to pull the forces out now, because there are lots of things that need to be done there, most importantly training as well as reconstruction. 


So I think they do have a real role to play for some time to come. 


ALEXANDRA KIRK: You don't think that the commitment is too open-ended, as Labor would argue? 


ALAN DUPONT: Well I don't think it's really as open-ended as that at all, because there's no question that it's an indefinite deployment of forces. I mean, I would imagine that Coalition forces wouldn't be there within, beyond, much beyond two to three more years and the sooner they train up Iraqi forces the sooner they can get out. 


ALEXANDRA KIRK: And Strategic Analyst Allan Behm can't agree with Labor either. 


ALLAN BEHM: Leaving aside the question of whether Australia should have joined the Coalition of the Willing at the very beginning, the fact is that were Australian troops to leave Iraq at this point, they would be leaving a situation worse than the situation in which they arrived and I don't think that that is a viable option for the Australian Government.  


So, in my view, I think the Australian Government has no option whatsoever but to leave our forces in Iraq until the security situation improves, and until there's a measure of reconstruction. 


ALEXANDRA KIRK: So when the Government says until well into next year, do you think it'll have to be longer than that? 


ALLAN BEHM: Look, I think it will be longer than that. I would be very surprised if the security situation were able to stabilise itself well enough by the middle of next year to have foreign forces totally withdrawn. 


ALEXANDRA KIRK: But do you think the Government should say that rather than extending the deadline every six months or so? 


ALLAN BEHM: I think the Government is dealing with quite a long list of unknowns, and I guess what it doesn't want to do is to say that the Australian defence force is going to be there, you know, for the next 10 or 20 years.  


I think what it is doing is simply announcing it in a series of steps and I think that's a reasonable enough thing to do, because we really don't know what the situation will be in a year or two years' time. 


MARK COLVIN: Strategic Analyst Allan Behm.