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Monday, 7 March 2005
Page: 54

Senator HILL (Minister for Defence) (3:50 PM) —I seek leave to make a statement relating to the Australian task group deployment in Iraq.

Leave granted.

Senator HILL —The Senate will be aware that on 22 February the Prime Minister announced the government’s decision to send an Australian task group to Iraq.

This task group will go to Al Muthanna province in southern Iraq. It will work closely with the Japanese Iraq Reconstruction Support Group, which is making a valuable humanitarian contribution to the rebuilding process in the province. It will also work with British forces, who maintain operational control of southern Iraq.

The Australian task group will have two roles.

First, it will provide a secure environment for the Japanese Iraq Reconstruction Support Group which is currently building roads and schools, ensuring clean water supply, and delivering incidental health services.

Second, the task group will be involved in the further training of the Iraqi security forces. That training is essential if Iraqis are to assume responsibility for their own security.

This deployment was a difficult decision, taken by the government after careful consideration of Australia’s interests and our global and regional responsibilities.

It is a sign of Australia’s commitment to the people of Iraq in their struggle for a better future. It is also a sign of the importance the government places on working with Japan—a close friend and regional partner—on global security issues.

Iraq today is at a critical juncture; the Prime Minister has referred to it as a ‘tilting point’—one where the balance between success and failure turns on a test of wills.

Terrorists and insurgents have set themselves the goal of thwarting the emergence of a secure and democratic Iraq. The international community must deny them this objective.

Australia shares an obligation and an opportunity to help build a secure and democratic Iraq—an opportunity given new force by the magnificent expression of Iraqi democracy that we all witnessed at the end of January.

A failure of will now would be an abrogation of our nation’s interests and values. It would see Australia shun our closest friends, reward our avowed enemies and turn away from a courageous people who have chosen the path of our deepest convictions.

The deployment

The task group will total approximately 450 personnel—the bulk drawn from the Darwin based 1st Brigade. It will include some 40 ASLAV armoured vehicles.

The period from the Prime Minister’s announcement of the task group through to deployment will be about 10 weeks.

The task group will add to approximately 920 ADF personnel that are currently deployed to the Middle East area of operations. At present, some 50 to 70 Australian personnel are engaged in training Iraqi security forces north of Baghdad. This contingent will be rolled into the Al Muthanna Task Group when their current assignment is completed.

The task group will operate under the national command of Australia’s joint task force in the Middle East area of operations, while being under operational control of the UK multi-national division in southern Iraq. ADF units and personnel deployed in Iraq remain under Australian national command and in all their operations will abide by Australian law.

The precise length of the deployment will be determined by circumstances as they emerge, bearing in mind that the central goal of the coalition in Iraq is to ensure the earliest practicable transfer of internal and external security to the Iraqis themselves.

Initially, the task group deployment will be for a period of 12 months, based on two rotations of six months each. If the Japanese presence were to end prior to the conclusion of the initial 12-month deployment, the government would review the operation.

The interim Iraqi government warmly welcomes and endorses the Australian task group deployment. The continued presence of our forces in Iraq will be conditional on the continuing support of the incoming Iraqi transitional government.

The new circumstances

While the Prime Minister has stated consistently that we keep the level and composition of our forces in Iraq under review, he has not sought to disguise the fact that this deployment represents a change in the government’s previously stated position that we did not plan any major increase in our commitment.

This change reflects the convergence of new circumstances on the ground.

As the Prime Minister has said before, from time to time since the end of combat operations, there have been informal requests from the Americans and the British for a greater Australian presence in Iraq.

So far as the decision he announced on 22 February is concerned, the trigger for discussions within the coalition involving Australia was the final confirmation by the Dutch in mid-November 2004 of their decision not to renew their deployment to Iraq.

For the past two years the Dutch have maintained some 1,400 troops in Al Muthanna province providing security for the Japanese forces. Under Japan’s constitution, that country’s military can only operate in a non-combat zone, can only be involved in humanitarian and reconstruction activities, and the use of force by the Japanese is limited to self-defence only.

Unless additional security could be provided to replace the Dutch, there was a real possibility the Japanese could no longer remain in Iraq. This would have been a serious blow to the coalition’s reconstruction effort and to the broader credibility of the coalition in Iraq.

The Senate, of course, will be aware of the very heavy burden being carried in Iraq by the United States and British forces.

Japan’s presence in Iraq as part of the coalition is very important, both in substance and through its symbolism. Japan is a significant Asian power, a great Pacific democracy and a global economic power. Its presence in Iraq indicates the broad range of nations working to assist that country to consolidate a democratic future.

The other factor weighing heavily on the Australian government’s decision making was the success of the Iraqi national elections—an outcome far more inspiring and impressive than anybody was entitled to expect.

Nothing better illustrates what is at stake in Iraq than the memorable images of brave Iraqi men and women holding aloft their ink-stained fingers to record their first ever act of democratic freedom.

We should not underestimate the positive force that this—the first genuine experiment in Arab democracy—can have in bringing a more hopeful future to the Middle East.

Indeed, recent months have seen a number of very positive developments in that troubled region. As well as the success of the Iraqi elections, we have seen new steps towards peace between Israel and the Palestinians. We have seen moves towards multicandidate presidential elections in Egypt and greater democracy at a municipal level in Saudi Arabia. And just last week, there was a dramatic expression of people power in Lebanon which has led to an announcement of a phased Syrian withdrawal from that country.

The importance to all these events of the ousting of Saddam Hussein—opening the way to democracy in Iraq—should not be underestimated. It may yet prove a historic turning point for the Middle East—one that could profoundly alter the outlook for freedom and democracy in that part of the world.

For the benefit of the Senate, I want to put on record the key exchanges between the Australian, British and Japanese governments leading up to the Prime Minister’s announcement of the task group.

Confirmation in mid-November 2004 of the Dutch government’s decision not to renew their Iraq deployment led to discussions between coalition partners on the need to maintain an appropriate security force in Al Muthanna province.

UK Defence Secretary, Mr Geoffrey Hoon, conveyed to me by letter on 20 January 2005 a request for an Australian contribution in the province.

UK Foreign Secretary, Mr Jack Straw, wrote to Mr Downer on 4 February 2005 requesting Australian support.

The National Security Committee of Cabinet met on 16 February 2005 and considered the matter very carefully—on the basis of advice from the Chief of the Defence Force and assessments from relevant intelligence agencies.

The Prime Minister of Japan, Mr Koizumi, telephoned the Prime Minister on 18 February and requested Australia’s contribution.

The British Prime Minister, Mr Tony Blair, telephoned the Prime Minister in Auckland on 21 February to reinforce the requests that had previously been conveyed by Mr Straw to Mr Downer and Mr Hoon to me.

I want to repeat—this deployment to Iraq was not an easy decision for the government. I know it will be unpopular with a good number of Australians. But a government—acting in the national interest—must have a capacity to respond to new circumstances as they arise.

Security situation in Al Muthanna province

The military deployment does involve the risk of casualties. The security situation in this part of Iraq, however, is different from that in other areas such as the Sunni Triangle.

Al Muthanna province has a small population and, relatively speaking, has been free of violence. Nevertheless, Iraq remains a dangerous place and the ADF constantly reviews the threat environment and adjusts its force protection measures accordingly.

The government has ensured that the ADF personnel are well trained and have the right type of equipment for their mission.

All 40 ASLAVs will be fitted with enhanced protective measures to ensure multiple layers of protection for each vehicle. In some cases, enhanced protection will be fitted on arrival in theatre prior to operations commencing. We will not discuss the exact and full details of enhancements to individual vehicles for operational security reasons.

There has been some commentary relating to the fact that the size of the Australian task group is substantially less than the Dutch contingent it is replacing.

This largely reflects the different tasks of the two forces. Whereas the Dutch contingent assumed broad security responsibilities, the Australian task group will have a narrower mission working in collaboration with British forces that will have overall responsibility for the security of the province. The size of the task group also reflects an updated assessment of the enhanced capabilities of Iraqi security forces.

In the end, the figure of 450 personnel reflected the advice provided to cabinet by the Australian Defence Force, following consultations with military officials from Britain, Japan and the United States.

Our responsibilities in the region

This latest commitment to Iraq will not affect Australia’s ability to support current operations or to respond to other national and regional tasks.

Our forces will continue to discharge their other responsibilities to their normal high standard—whether in the Solomon Islands, in East Timor or continuing their important humanitarian work in Operation Sumatra Assist. The ADF is prepared, equipped and structured to face all these challenges.

In a world more interconnected than ever before, Australia must maintain a global perspective on the security threats we face in the 21st century. Australia’s capacity to hold such a perspective—necessarily influenced by regional interests and responsibilities—is a measure of our strategic maturity as a nation.

In closing, I wish to pay tribute to the men and women of the Australian Defence Force. Under tough conditions, they are performing magnificent work to secure their country and to extend the reach of peace and freedom.

This deployment is consistent with Australia’s strategic interests and with the best traditions of our forces. I know that the thoughts and prayers of all Australians will be with them when they embark on their mission.