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Monday, 7 March 2005
Page: 60

Senator ALLISON (Leader of the Australian Democrats) (4:11 PM) —The Democrats want to put on the record our strong opposition to the government sending 450 personnel to Iraq, bringing the number there to 1,370. These troops are to provide what is called a secure environment for the Japanese Iraq Reconstruction Support Group. They are to replace 1,400 Dutch troops, as I understand it. It is not altogether clear why the Dutch have pulled out their troops but it is more than likely that, like Australia, the vast majority of their population did not support the involvement in the attack on Iraq in the first place.

The Democrats, as everyone would know, were strongly opposed to Australia’s involvement in the attack on Iraq. Whilst we hope Iraq becomes a stable, more prosperous and democratic country, the odds that this will be the case are shaky, to say the least. The attack was illegal. It was justified on the basis that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction that were a direct threat to Australia, which was neither true at the time of the decision nor at the end of the exhaustive search for them. Regime change was said by our Prime Minister to be a second-order reason for attacking Iraq. The Prime Minister also said at the National Press Club just before the war that Saddam Hussein could stay on in power, provided he got rid of his weapons of mass destruction.

Whilst opposing the war, the Democrats were prepared to say that, having joined in the destruction of much of Iraq’s infrastructure, we should pull our weight in repairing the damage. But we waited in vain for the government to tell us just what our role was in rebuilding the country and re-establishing security, and just how long this would take. What exactly is the job we have undertaken and when will we know it is finished? So it is against this backdrop of uncertainty and the seriously contradictory justifications for sending in troops in the first place that we should now consider this latest decision by the government. If, as the government has said, our troops are needed to support the recent election in Iraq, how does this sit with assurances by the coalition of the willing prior to the attack that our soldiers would be welcomed with open arms? How does this sit with the fact that most candidates and the United Iraqi Alliance, which secured the largest single block of votes in the 30 January election, won their votes on the basis, presumably, of their campaign of ending the US led occupation? I understand that the alliance has since called for a timetable for the withdrawal of the United States, UK and Australian troops in Iraq. I would ask the minister whether it is the case that the coalition of the willing has rejected that proposal and even refused to meet with the alliance about developing such a plan.

We would like to know from the minister whether or not the incoming government was consulted about the decision, or didn’t the US government even bother briefing us on the matter? Is it yet another case of blindly following the United States and of risking the lives of our troops in what is effectively still a war zone?

Days before the election, there was an attack on an Australian light armoured vehicle and the Australian embassy was fired upon. Australian troops are not safe in Iraq. There are, on average, 60 attacks by insurgents every day, up from 25 in 2004. Iraqi intelligence estimates are that there are 40,000 hard-core insurgents and 200,000 part-time fighters in Iraq. Yet, the government claims in this statement that the election was successful beyond expectations. I would hate to think how many of our troops would be needed had it been a failure.

The attack on Iraq was also said to be an attack on terrorists but, last month, the head of the CIA told a US Senate committee:

Islamic extremists are exploiting the Iraqi conflict to recruit new anti-US jihadists ... who will leave Iraq experienced in and focused on acts of urban terrorism. They represent a potential pool of contacts to build transnational terrorist cells, groups, and networks in Saudi Arabia, Jordan and other countries.

He went on to say:

The Iraq conflict, while not a cause of extremism, has become a cause for extremists.

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian terrorist who has joined al-Qaeda since the invasion, hopes to establish a safe haven in Iraq, according to the CIA, from which he could operate against Western nations and moderate Muslim governments. The committee was told:


meaning the United States—

policies in the Middle East fuel Islamic resentment.

And it may only be a matter of time before al-Qaeda or another group attempts to use chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. Intensive military raids over Iraq have killed several thousand suspected insurgents and put 8,000 in detention but have made almost no impact on the 30 or so most wanted insurgents, according to US military officers. Syria is said to be a base for financing and supplying the insurgents, which no doubt accounts for the latest moves by the US against Syria in Lebanon.

As I said, the Democrats supported Australian troops staying in Iraq until the election but, six weeks on, we think it is time that they were returned, unless the Prime Minister can persuade Australians that there is a plan—an exit strategy—that they are welcomed by the transitional government and that they are not in danger. We are told that this will be an initial deployment of 12 months but that the precise length of that deployment will be determined by circumstances as they emerge. What circumstances? We accept that the deployment of our troops in southern Iraq is less dangerous than in the northern Sunni-dominated triangle but the fact that they are needed there at all in a part of Iraq where there is supposed to be support for democracy I think speaks volumes for the high-risk strategy of bringing about democracy by violent means.

The government says it was a difficult decision, citing the importance of working with Japan on global security issues. It sounds to me as if, like the original tack, this has much more to do with alliances than a decision that is in Australia’s overall interests. It is a double standard for the government on the one hand to ignore its commitments and obligations to one set of neighbours, such as East Timor, while on the other hand to put ahead of those its neighbourly obligations to Japan. Certainly, we acknowledge that we have long-term obligations to help rebuild Iraq, but sending additional soldiers in is not the way to do it, in our view. Rebuilding does not equate to increasing our military involvement.

The Democrats insist that the government should be planning to bring troops home, not increasing our commitment. As I said, there seems to be no withdrawal plan, just escalating costs. The cost of our invasion of Iraq is enormously expensive. At a time when the Australian government is planning to claw back millions of dollars from disabled Australians, it is now seeking to justify the blown-out cost of the war at more than $1.2 billion by conservative estimates. This latest commitment could see the costs reaching $2 billion in a year or so. We have maintained several hundred personnel in the region, with another 450 Australian men and women to be deployed in weeks, at a further cost of $300 million a year. The cost to Iraq has been incalculable in dollar terms, with estimates of in excess of 100,000 civilian dead as a result of the war.

Tomorrow is International Women’s Day. A recent Amnesty report entitled Iraq: decades of suffering, now women deserve better suggests that women are no better off now in terms of safety than under Saddam Hussein, with increased murders and sexual abuse, including by US forces. According to the report, the lawlessness and increased killings, abductions and rapes have restricted women’s freedom of movement. This includes women being subjected to sexual threats. There are also reports that some detained women have been sexually abused and possibly raped.

The Democrats support Amnesty International’s call on the Iraqi authorities and newly elected members of the national assembly to enshrine the rights of women in the new constitution. Australia has a long-term obligation to provide aid and assistance in the rebuilding of Iraq, but repair and rebuilding must be done with aid, not tanks and guns pointed at Iraqi citizens. We believe the bulk of Australian troops should now be withdrawn, with the exception of essential personnel for protecting Australian diplomatic staff. This would largely involve withdrawing the Australian ship from the gulf and bringing home Australian personnel training the Iraqi army. It certainly does not involve sending additional troops to southern Iraq.

The minister today called the invasion of Iraq ‘a first genuine experiment in Arab democracy’. If this is an experiment then, in terms of the loss of lives and devastation, it is a failed experiment and one which should not be compounded. The Democrats have put forward legislation to take the power to go to war out of the hands of the cabinet and place it with both houses of parliament. The war in Iraq is clear evidence that parliamentary consent should be needed before Australian troops are sent to overseas conflicts. Will the next experiment be a war on Iran? Just how many experiments on other sovereign nations should we be joint participants in? This is a case of an experiment gone wrong. Recent comments on Iran by the United States Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, should concern all Australians who do not want this nation to again take part in a pre-emptive strike and get involved in yet another drawn-out, destructive conflict.

War should not be the prerogative of the Prime Minister. Our Prime Minister should not have the power to send our troops to war without the support of the UN, the Australian parliament or the Australian people—and without the Governor-General needing to authorise that decision. If war is an experiment then the Prime Minister is the mad scientist. The Howard government was the first in our history to go to war without the support of the parliament and today seeks to justify further military aggression by committing more young Australians.

The Senate voted against going to war in Iraq even as the bombs began to fall on Baghdad but had no power to prevent it. Democrat legislation would ensure that that did not happen again. Our position is clear: the executive should not be able to involve Australian troops in overseas conflict if they have not been able to successfully make their case, at least to the parliament. That is the position the Democrats have held and proposed for some 25 years.

The ongoing violence in Iraq proves, I think, that regime change through invasion has too high a cost. The minister cannot say today that the government is acting in the national interest in committing more Australian troops to Iraq. Australian people have the right, through their elected representatives, to participate in issues of national interest, but the government continues to deny Australians that right, even as it blithely acknowledges that its actions are unpopular.

Iraq is in crisis; there is no question about that. A survey of health conditions in Iraq has found huge increases in deaths and mental and physical illness from all causes as a result of the conflict. In a recent report of a survey of health in Iraq, the Medical Association for Prevention of War estimated that 100,000 civilians have died as a result of the invasion and the continuing conflict. The risk of violent death in the 18 months after the invasion was 58 times higher than in the 15 months before it, while the risk of death from all causes was 2.5 times higher.

A report in recent months by Iraq’s health ministry and the UN Development Program found that the rate of malnutrition amongst children under five has almost doubled in the last two years, with 7.7 per cent acutely malnourished. As one of the nations who initiated this war Australia has a legal and ethical obligation to ensure that the health system and situation faced by the local people is improved. The Democrats call on the government to acknowledge the crisis and immediately inject additional funding into overseas aid. Our obligation is to health restoration programs in Iraq, as well as to health and education, not to more troops.

The government’s commitment of Australian troops to the southern province has significant repercussions for the safety of those troops and that of Iraqi civilians, because of its disregard for the use of depleted uranium ammunition in this area. Despite the minister’s assertion today that this province has seen a low level of violence, this does not equate to a safe level of DU in the area. Reports suggest that depleted uranium munition was routinely employed in encounters with armoured enemy vehicles, including in urban environments, and airborne ordnance has been fired less discriminately.

It is a fact that DU ammunition has been widely used during Operation Iraqi Freedom and it has been used in southern Iraq. This region is no exception: the usage of DU ammunition in and around the capital of the province, As Samawah, has been confirmed by US troops and embedded journalists. A report last year by Dr Asaf Durakovic, one of the world’s leading experts on depleted uranium, has confirmed that nine US military police officers tested positive for depleted uranium contamination after their return from service in Samawah in Iraq. Samawah, which has been used as a dump for material destroyed by DU-tipped shells, is radioactive. Since the US government has so far not disclosed exact numbers, it remains as yet unknown just how much DU has been used in the war, and surveys will not reveal this.

The British government has been a bit more forthcoming, admitting that British Challenger tanks expended 1.9 tons of DU. Reports predict that 100 to 200 tons of DU may have been released during combat, with much centred in and around urban areas. This increases the potential for civilian exposure to DU, as well as exposure for Australians now destined for the area. Indeed, all over Iraq, the remains of spent DU shells and DU contaminated debris have been found littering the streets in urban areas. Some wrecked vehicles have been towed away, and the most obvious contaminated sites are marked; however, most locations have not even been identified, let alone cleaned, even though there is wide consensus that DU contamination is a potential health hazard.

There is no clear answer on the amount of depleted uranium in the area to which our troops are being sent. Until this is known and addressed, we say Australian service men and women should not be subjected to the risk of contamination. My colleague Senator Bartlett asked the minister today what precautions would be taken to prevent the exposure of this additional contingent to DU. The response—that surveys will be conducted—is, we think, manifestly inadequate. The Democrats do not find it acceptable for the Australian government to subject Australian service men and women to these risks.

The minister’s statement today does not justify Australia’s increased commitment to Iraq, it does not provide aid to the Iraqi civilians who have suffered terribly as a consequence of modern warfare and it does nothing to alleviate the fear of pre-emptive strikes against other nations. We do not wish ill on our troops—in fact, we hope that they return to this country safely—but we do not think the government is being responsible in sending them there in the first place.