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Prime Minister comments on the Iraq War; North Korea; and his visit to Hobart.



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PRIME MINISTER

2 April 2003

TRANSCRIPT OF THE PRIME MINISTER THE HON JOHN HOWARD MP RADIO INTERVIEW WITH TIM COX, ABC HOBART

Subjects: Iraq; North Korea; visit to Hobart.

E&OE…………………………………………………………………………………………...

COX:

Prime Minister, good morning, welcome.

PRIME MINISTER:

Good morning, Tim. Good to be here.

COX:

Good to see you as well. First visit to Tasmania for some time with the Abt Wilderness Railway opening on the agenda, it's been a little while in coming. What's your feeling about that?

PRIME MINISTER:

Oh, it's a very important project for Tasmania, it's a $25 million contribution from the Federal Government. And it was the top of the list of the Federation Fund project a few years ago, submitted by the Tasmanian Government. It will support the growing tourism industry in this state. Tourism is doing very well in Tasmania at the moment. I had a breakfast this morning and people were talking very positively. This is due to a lot of things, not least the ferry subsidies that the Federal Government has provided and the general attraction of Tasmania as a…

COX:

Haven.

www.pm.gov.au

PRIME MINISTER:

Haven, peaceful… a very nice place to visit. I heard good things this morning from business people about the Tasmania economy and the optimism that people felt and that is very good. And certainly, tourism is a key part of it and the Railway is integral to that. And I have no doubt that we made the right decision a few years ago to nominate the Abt Railway as our major Federation Fund project in this state.

COX:

One of the things I'm sure people are desperate to ask you about is the war, the duration of this war, it's been going for a fortnight now. When you received the call from US President Bush asking you to commit Australian troops to the first forces there, did he give you any information or any idea as to how long he thought the conflict would run?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, he didn't and I didn't expect it. We've got to preserve a sense of proportion, you say it's been going for two weeks now. We ought to remember that the core military campaign in Afghanistan to get rid of the Taliban and al-Qaeda, that took 37 days. The first Gulf War took 41 days, which included 37 days of bombing. And the campaign to help the Muslims of Kosovo against Serbia by the NATO countries - we weren't involved in that - took 79 days. This has been going 14 days and people are saying why isn't it over? I think we have to take a bit of a reality check. You won't find any sort of absurdly short time predictions from me. I was very careful about that because I know that when the military operation starts, you never know exactly what's going to happen. All I can say is that on all the advice I have, it's going very well from the coalition's point of view.

COX:

Do you get a sense though from the Australian people that they were expecting it to be over by now, within a fortnight?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, some might have but my sense is that most people understand that things like this can't be done in a few days. And whilst, you know, everybody would have liked that to have been the case, I don't think anybody really expected it to be the case. It's been going 14 days, so you compare it with what I've just mentioned and you get some idea of the need to take a bit of a reality check and to look at what's been achieved. I mean, remember when it started there were a number of things people were worried about, they were worried that the oil fields would be set alight…

COX:

As they were the first time.

PRIME MINISTER:

That's right. Now, that has virtually not happened and because of the strategic action taken by the Americans and the British, and I think there's only two oil wells burning out of a

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possible 1100, and that is enormously important to the Iraqi people because it's their oil, and the fact that the assets have not been dissipated is very valuable. Secondly, there hasn't been the mass exodus of refugees that people were predicting. And thirdly, there haven't as yet, and as each day goes by the likelihood diminishes, any missiles fired at Israel which would have really complicated things and perhaps brought Israel into the war. When you add that to the, I think, unprecedented steps that have been taken to avoid as far as possible civilian casualties, you've got to take all of those pluses into account, many of which people didn't think could be achieved.

COX:

Has the equation changed at all overnight though, with Saddam Hussein calling on his people to launch a jihad - a holy war - to defend Iraq? Does that change things if he's calling all Iraqis to the cause?

PRIME MINISTER:

I don't think it does change it and this is not a campaign against Islam. And I mentioned a moment ago the NATO campaign carried out against Serbia, well that was carried out against nominally orthodox Christian Serbia by NATO countries, including Britain and the United States, on behalf of the Islamic people of Kosovo. And you remember when the Kosovars came to Australia and they were given safe haven. The overwhelming majority of those people were of the Islamic faith. I mean, this is not a war against Islam…

COX:

…would be easy for Saddam to portray it that way…

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, somebody like him will portray anything in whatever way represents his purposes. I mean, bear in mind you're dealing with somebody who used poisoned gas against his own people, somebody who when there was an uprising in Basra in 1991 in anticipation of American military help, when that didn't materialise it's estimated 30 to 40 000 people were exterminated in reprisals. Now, this is the kind of man you're dealing with and this is one of the reasons why I'm not surprised that the Iraqi civilian population is being very wary while it still thinks Saddam Hussein is in control.

COX:

But he is still in control, and does that alter the equation, as far as you're concerned, that he's…?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, the extent to which he's in control, I don't know. I use the words civilian population think he's in control. It's interesting that the Information Minister read the statement.

COX:

Do you believe he's not dead?

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PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I don't know. I'm not asserting that he's dead or injured, I'm not asserting that. All I'm saying is that it is interesting that you haven't seen him wandering around the streets.

COX:

So, you are asserting that?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, I'm just saying it's interesting. I'm not… I mean don't know… no, I'm not asserting that. I think these are legitimate questions to ask. You've seen since this military operation started you've seen other people appearing, you've seen the Information Minister, you've seen the Defence Minister and you've seen the Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, not so Saddam Hussein.

COX:

What is your personal concern, John Howard, over the number of civilian casualties in Iraq that the front page of the paper here in Hobart today - ‘Blunder kills tragic family’. [inaudible] virtually assured would be absolutely minimal.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, no, nobody gave a guarantee there would be no civilian casualties. I never did that, and it’s not fair to suggest that I…

COX:

Virtually assured they’d be minimal.

PRIME MINISTER:

I can repeat that there are unprecedented steps being taken to minimise civilian casualties, and the targeting policies - bombing of the Australians, and we have our own targeting policies which are even tighter than the Americans - but the Americans and the British as well are taking certain… now, that incident yesterday, of course that is tragic. It has made… we are made more aware of it because there is unprecedented media coverage. Does anybody think for a moment that there weren’t tragedies multiplied a hundred or a thousand fold of that order in previous military conflicts that we never heard of and we were never told about. Think of the women and children who have been killed or starved to death by Saddam Hussein’s regime. Think of the million people that his regime has been responsible for the deaths of. Think of the fact that before this operation started, 60 per cent of the population of Iraq needed food under the food for oil program to survive, and that is a direct result of the refusal of the Iraqi regime to allow a proper investigation of their chemical and biological weapons capacity. I mean…

COX:

At what point though do you say - I am concerned about the number of civilian…

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PRIME MINISTER:

I will say every day the death of one person is a tragedy. I mean anybody who suggests that because you support a military operation, you are insensitive to the death of human beings, to the death of civilians, they’re wrong. Of course that upsets me. It upsets all of us, but you have to put that against human suffering if action is not taken. We are aware of that because we’re an open society. Does Saddam Hussein allow the television cameras to go into his torture chambers? Does he allow the television cameras to go into the… to photograph people who have been victims of his regime? Of course he doesn’t. We did see some pitiful photographs of the impact of the poison gas he used on the Kurds in the 1980s, but when you’re living in a dictatorship like that, the footage that understandably and properly upsets us, is not available in relation to his misdeeds. And you’ve got to always put that into the balance and bear that in mind when you understandably express concern about what has happened.

COX:

It’s 10 to 10. My guest on ABC Tasmania is the Prime Minister, John Howard. You spoke a little while ago of your fears of North Korea’s position in our region. Do you carry the same resolve for regime change in Iraq to North Korea? Do you feel that there is that sort of need there as well?

PRIME MINISTER:

I’m not arguing for regime change in North Korea and my principle argument in relation to Iraq was for disarmament. Obviously once the military campaign started, it was axiomatic that the regime would be removed, and I think it would be a good thing if it does. But if Iraq had… let me put it this way - if Iraq had disarmed and fully cooperated, then I don’t think people would have been arguing on its own for regime change. We want North Korea to go back to complying with the commitments it made when it signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and when it entered into that arrangement with the Clinton administration in 1994 whereby it would not pursue a nuclear capacity and in return the international community, including Australia, provided it with fuel support. We would like to go back to that. My argument connecting the two is that if the world is not prepared to stand up to Iraq, then I don’t think North Korea is going to take too much notice of diplomatic pressure. If the Iraqi, and I believe it will be, military campaign is successfully completed, then I believe that the diplomatic pressure that the United States and others will be able to bring to bear on North Korea will be more effective, will be that much greater.

COX:

Will it show North Korea that at least three nations are convinced enough, in the cause of disarmament, to send troops in?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think what it will demonstrate is… look I’m not talking about having a military conflict in North Korea. We tried diplomacy for 12 years, largely diplomacy for 12 years, in relation to Iraq and we’ve only begun the diplomatic pressure on North Korea. It’s at a different stage of the cycle. What I would like to see is the successful completion of the military operation in Iraq, and that will be a demonstration to the North Koreans that the world is serious. But it’s not only America and Britain and Australia. Japan is a vital ally in relation to North Korea.

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Japan has a vital interest, and Japan is a very close country to Australia, a very important country. China has a big role in relation to North Korea. China arguably exercises more influence over North Korea than any country in the world. So North Korea is very important to all of us. It’s in our region and we have a very direct interest in the outcome.

COX:

A caller has rung to ask if you will go to Iraq towards the end of the conflict or perhaps once it’s concluded, to see first hand what Australian troops have achieved there. Does that have any interest for you?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I think it’s premature for me to be talking about going to Iraq when President Bush hasn’t talked about going, Tony Blair and others haven’t talked about it. I think it’s one of things I’d obviously be interested in considering at an appropriate time, but it’s just… I mean they’re not interested at the moment. The troops are there doing a magnificent job and it’s just not appropriate at this stage to be considering that. They have a military operation. They’re doing it superbly and in a way that I believe won justifiable praise from people all around the world. I’ve literally just come from a telephone conversation with Alexander Downer who a couple of hours ago had a meeting with not only the Vice-President, but the President called in, President Bush, and Condoleezza Rice, he met the Secretary of State, and he asked me to… the President asked him to convey to me the great admiration of the American administration for the fantastic job that the Australian forces are doing.

COX:

Why is Alexander Downer doing that rather than you?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I thought the best thing for me to be doing at the moment was to be staying in Australia. I go to America quite a bit and I couldn't see that our interests will be better served by my going rather than the Foreign Minister. The Foreign Minister's travel is part of their job and it was his job to go there. I will have an opportunity of going to the United States again in the not too distant future but I thought it was better that I stay in Australia. And he didn't actually go on my behalf. I mean, what happened was that President Bush asked me to go at the same time as he asked the British Prime Minister to go - I mean, it's a much shorter distance between England and America - and I said, look, I'll take a rain check on that. And quite separately the Foreign Minister decided to go and the President has obviously seen fit to drop in on him and I think that's a measure of the regard in which Australia is held at the present time.

COX:

Is it still your view, Prime Minister, that the war is going well and as planned?

PRIME MINISTER:

It's certainly going well. I mean, look at what has happened - all that ground has been gained, no blazing oil fields, no mass refugee exodus, no scud missile attacks on Israel, humanitarian

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aid is starting to flow and it's all been going for two weeks. Go back to the first Gulf War, after two weeks the bombing was still going on.

COX:

You are going to be meeting with the families of [inaudible] servicemen and women while you're in Tasmania. You've done this previously, on the weekend I think it was.

PRIME MINISTER:

At the weekend we had a very big gathering in Sydney.

COX:

What do they say to you, what do they tell you?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, they say they're very proud of their husbands and wives and sons and daughters.

COX:

Are they fearful, though?

PRIME MINISTER:

It's a mixture of pride and anxiety and I try and feel that way…I mean, it's the feeling I have. I have great pride in what they're doing but the thing that I think of most of all in this whole issue is their safety, that matters far more to me than anything else and that is the thing about which I am most concerned. They are very well trained. The fact that we sent them there early has helped them and any number of people in the services have said to me, thank you for sending them early so they can get ready. And that's come from the very highest levels of the military and also from the families. Of course they want them home and they want them home safe and sound, that's very understandable, but it is a mixture of pride and anxiety.

COX:

Will you be meeting with Liberal leader, Rene Hidding, while you're town?

PRIME MINISTER:

I've met him already at a breakfast and I'll be seeing him again tonight.

COX:

And have you asked him how the Tasmanian political landscape…

PRIME MINISTER:

We've had a quick talk and we'll have a lengthier discussion tonight.

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COX:

And would it be fair to say that it could be going better for Libs in Tasmania?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think Rene has done a very good job of recovering from a bad position. I mean, we did very badly in the last State election here, let's be honest about it, but Rene has got people together. I think they're working far better as a team and there's still a long way to go but they're developing more of a profile in the public. And it's hard slog back but there's no alternative when you're in opposition, no alternative to hard, persistent work. You've got to be up early…

COX:

Out walking.

PRIME MINISTER:

Certainly out walking, yes. I did this morning - the rain interrupted me after a quarter of an hour.

COX:

We need the rain.

PRIME MINISTER:

I know we need it, I didn't complain, I’m all for it but you've got to really be hammering away as much as you possibly can.

COX:

Does it still strike you as odd that you are so popular electorally but Liberals around in the States are not at all, just the opposite?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, it's an unusual situation to have all State and Territory Labor governments and a Federal Liberal Government. There are obviously different reasons in different parts of the country for it and that's the subject of a lot of discussion within the Liberal Party and so it should be. Things turn around very quickly. I’m always…I’m careful not to take support for granted and popularity can be a very ephemeral thing.

COX:

It can indeed. We've only got a minute left but do you think about down the track for yourself personally, a fourth…

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PRIME MINISTER:

I’m just not thinking about that issue at the present time. I obviously will see the Australian people well and truly through this very difficult issue involving Iraq then I'll come back to thinking about my future but I haven't made any decision about my longer-term future.

COX:

Thanks for coming in this morning. Thanks for giving us so much of your time, I appreciate it.

PRIME MINISTER:

My pleasure.

[ends]