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Foreign Minister discusses Iraq; and Australians arrested in Lebanon.



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MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS HON ALEXANDER DOWNER, MP

TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE

DATE: 29 June, 2007

TITLE: Interview - AM Program - Iraq, Australian arrests in Lebanon.

PRESENTER: The Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, has just finished meetings in Baghdad with Iraqi and US leaders, urging the Iraqi Prime Minister to concentrate on reconciliation between the Sunnis and the Shiites and he’s promised them Australian troops will stay in the country. I spoke to him a short time ago.

Minister Downer, are the Iraqis and the Iraqi Prime Minister distressed at the continuing violence they are seeing over there? There was another car bomb overnight.

MR DOWNER: Yes. There’s no doubt about that. The Prime Minister is obviously very concerned about it and General Petraeus, who I spent a good deal of time with, the American Commander there, is as well. But I was heartened by some of General Petraeus’ analysis which was that the Americans feel that they are making very good progress now against al-Qaeda.

PRESENTER: Just in the last 24 hours though, we’ve heard from a very senior Republican Senator, Richard Lugar, suggesting the troop surge isn’t working and that it’s time to look at a complete withdrawal?

MR DOWNER: I think it is too early to make a judgement about the surge - they are only just getting all of the troops there now and they haven’t finished deploying the troops. We’ll have to give it plenty of time. It’s not a time at this stage to make that judgement. I

made the point to the Prime Minister that it’s very important that the Iraqis take this whole process of reconciliation further forward and do it more quickly than they are at the moment. So they’ve got a lot of work to do, in particular reconciling between the Sunnis and the Shiites.

PRESENTER: Did they ask for guarantees from you that Australian troops will stay?

MR DOWNER: They didn’t ask for guarantees but I made it clear that Australian troops would stay. I know that some people are saying that the Australian Government - not in Iraq, in Australia - the Labor Party is saying the Australian Government is thinking of pulling the troops out before the election for political reasons. We’re not doing anything of the sort. I made it very clear to the Iraqis while I was there that we wouldn’t abandon them and it was

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for us, a very important component of geopolitics that extremism in Iraq was defeated, that that was a very difficult challenge and not to be underestimated - that is the case in Afghanistan as well - and that we weren’t going to walk away.

PRESENTER: Minister, do you have any more word on the fate of the Australians in Lebanon?

MR DOWNER: I don’t have any more information on that. We’re still trying to get consular access to the four we know have been detained. We believe there may have been a fifth who has been detained as well and there’s good information that there’s a fifth but we haven’t had confirmation finally of that. It doesn’t look as though any Australians have been killed - I can say that - but we need to get consular access to these people and that hasn’t been granted yet.

PRESENTER: And how actively, or how fiercely, are your officials trying to get that access?

MR DOWNER: The Ambassador’s doing everything she can. She’s been in touch with the Defence Ministry on a constant basis, harassing them to provide that consular access and they’re saying they haven’t finished their investigations and they’re going to bring charges and when that process has happened, then they will provide access. But it doesn’t look as

though that’s going to happen for a couple of weeks or so yet. That’s the indication we’re getting from the Lebanese Defence Ministry.

PRESENTER: The Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer.

[Ends]