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The possibility of civil war in Iraq: foreign policy implications for Australia: Griffith Asia Institute, Brisbane: speech.

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An Address to the

Griffith Asia Institute

By Kevin Rudd, MP

Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs, Trade and

International Security

Queensland Conservatorium,

Southbank, Brisbane - 3 October 2005

The week before last in Washington DC, the following dire observations were made about the future of Iraq:

“There is no dynamic now pulling the nation together… All the dynamics are pulling the country apart”.

They were not made by a liberal columnist.

They were not made by a disgruntled intelligence analyst.

Nor were they made by the 68 member-strong “Out of Iraq” caucus which has recently been established by House Democrats.

No, these remarks were made by Prince Saud Al-Faisal, Foreign Minister of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for the last thirty years, son of the late King Faisal, long-standing ally of the United States.

Prince Saud’s remarks in Washington went down like a bombshell within the beltway. Prince Saud went on to say that he was in Washington to carry this message “to anyone who will listen” in the Bush Administration.

Stunned by these remarks, an Administration official said that the United States “values and respects” Prince Saud’s views, “and we all share a common concern for the future and stability of Iraq”.

This represents the very definition of a diplomatic understatement.

Prince Saud’s observations have largely gone unnoticed in Australia - at least in the public debate on Iraq. They have, however, fuelled a major internal debate within the foreign and defence policy establishment in Canberra over where the Howard Government’s grand Iraq enterprise is now headed. Including whether Iraq is about to go up in flames and how Australia should respond.

All this is set against the background that at the end of next week, Iraqis will vote in a referendum on whether to adopt a constitution for a new Iraqi federation.

And should this referendum pass, final elections are scheduled to be held on 15 December for a final Iraqi National Assembly.

The stakes over the next two months are very high indeed for Iraq. They are also very high for the future of the US occupation. They are equally high for the future of the Australian Government’s policy on Iraq - including the future of

Australia’s own military deployment.

The purpose of my address this evening is to pose some fundamental questions to the Howard Government concerning the future of its Iraq policy including:

• What progress has been achieved so far against the government’s stated war objectives two and a half years ago?

• What is the government’s policy on Iraq’s political future following the 15 October referendum (whether or not the constitution is accepted or rejected)?

• What precisely does the government mean by its policy of remaining in Iraq “until the job is done”, in terms of the state of preparedness necessary for the new Iraqi army and police service?

• What is the government’s analysis of the prospects of civil war in Iraq between the Sunni and Shi’ia communities - and what implications does this have on the future of any Iraqi federation?

• And finally, what is the government’s understanding of current American planning on its timetable for withdrawal, and what does this mean for the future of the Australian military deployment?

Of course, Iraq is not Australia’s only national security challenge at present. It is one of a number.

• Our continued military deployment in Afghanistan remains important;

• In the aftermath of the horrific bombings in Bali over the weekend, a comprehensive regional counter-terrorism strategy in South-East Asia is equally important;

• As does the impending threat to our national and regional security arising from the real possibility of an Avian Flu pandemic.

For Australia, Iraq nonetheless remains a central part of our national security debate. This is despite the fact that in recent weeks and months, the Howard Government gives the distinct impression of wanting to talk about Iraq less and less as the security situation in that country gets worse and worse.

Nonetheless, because of Australia’s status as one of only three invading states back in March 2003; because of our subsequent legal status as an Occupying Power in Iraq; because Australia continues to have something in the vicinity of 1000 troops in theatre; Iraq can therefore not simply be shuffled off to one side by the Howard Government simply because times are becoming increasingly politically uncomfortable.

Why the Howard Government took Australia to war

In evaluating the success or failure of the Howard Government’s Iraq policy two and a half years on, it is important to remind ourselves of the precise objectives the Prime Minister set for Australia in the first place to justify his decision to invade Iraq - an invasion that took place in the absence of any endorsement by the United Nations Security Council.

• Reason number one given by the government (in fact the only reason advanced in the government’s legal opinion formally tabled in Parliament justifying its decision to go to war) was the elimination of Iraq’s stockpile

of chemical and biological weapons, which posed a real and immediate danger to regional and global security.

• The second reason advanced by the government was that this same stockpile of chemical and biological weapons could fall into the hands of terrorist organisations like al-Qaeda.

• Then there was the third reason, which was “the liberation of an oppressed people” - something the people of Zimbabwe have been keenly interested in ever since the Howard Government adopted this new doctrine for Australian foreign policy.

• Fourth, the government has since told us that the objective all along has been to build a new Iraqi democracy based on a pluralist Iraqi state.

• And fifth, the government has recently added to the above what can be described as a “democracy domino theory”, namely that democracy in Iraq will trigger the broader democratic transformation of the Arab world and the wider Middle East.

Of course, the other benchmark which the government set for itself was that the length of Australia’s military commitment to Iraq would be a matter of months, certainly not years.

All these objectives set by the government for its Iraq policy are based on repeated statements by the Prime Minister, the Foreign Minister, and the Defence Minister, both prior to and following the beginning of the war in March 2003.

Progress to date against the government’s war objectives

What progress therefore has been achieved against each of these objectives put to the Australian people by the Howard Government in justifying its unilateral decision to go to war?

On the core rationale for going to war, that is the elimination of stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons, the government’s Iraq policy has been an abject failure. The fact is there were no stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons in Iraq by the time the invasion took place. It should be recalled that the government heavily criticised those (including the Labor Party) who argued that the UN weapons inspectors be given more time to complete their work in order to provide the Security Council with a definitive report. That of course was the final request of Hans Blix - the Chief UN Weapons Inspector. But Mr Howard and Mr Downer knew better than that. They accused the UN, Hans Blix, and the

ALP of appeasement. They decided to go to war anyway. And the rest, as they say, is history. The Iraq Survey Group, appointed by the United States, and staffed in part by Australian WMD analysts, could find no smoking gun on WMD stockpiles whatsoever. In other words, Australia went to war based on a lie.

This therefore also accounts for the second stated reason for going to war: the government’s claim of an unacceptable danger that Iraq’s stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons could fall into the hands of terrorist organisations, including al-Qaeda. Leaving aside the problem of the non-existent stockpiles or non-existent chemical and biological weapons, the other problem with this particular objective from the outset was the government’s argument that al-Qaeda at that time had a close operational relationship with Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime. This was simply untrue. And the government knew it. Again, they lied.

The first two reasons having collapsed, the government then moved on to its third reason: the liberation of an oppressed people. It is important to emphasise that this objective (and for that matter, all subsequent objectives) did not feature at all in the government’s formerly tabled legal opinion to justify its decision to go to war. It was added once the WMD argument was disproved.

It is true that Saddam Hussein, a dictator of the worst type, has been removed. But if that is now a valid basis for going to war, what of other dictators such as Kim Jong-Il, the Burmese Junta, and Robert Mugabe? Consistency has never been one of the hallmarks of the Howard Government’s approach to foreign policy.

Then there is the additional question of the cost in Iraqi and allied lives and property arising from a two and a half year long insurgency waged against the American-led occupation. If the Howard Government is so keen to occupy the

moral high ground of “liberating an oppressed people”, why doesn’t it have the morality to simply tell the Australian people how many Iraqi civilians have been killed and injured since the war began? Transparency doesn’t seem to extend to the Howard Government on so delicate a question. When asked in Senate Estimates the answer to this, departmental officials, appallingly in my view, have simply said they don’t know.

As for progress achieved in building an Iraqi democracy, and the prospects of this democracy rolling on to the rest of the Middle East, this will form the basis of my remaining remarks this evening.

But before turning to those remarks, it is important to deal with the last of the government’s stated benchmarks to measure the success or otherwise of its Iraq

enterprise - namely that Australia’s military commitment would only be a matter of months - and certainly not years.

Those commitments were given by the Prime Minister two and a half years ago. Mr Howard was asked on 4 May 2003 of Australia’s troop commitment to Iraq: “…do you see it as months or years?”

The Prime Minister replied: “Well I certainly don't see it as years.”

Once again, this has been a clear breach of an undertaking to the Australian people. But, always fearful of the electoral consequences, our otherwise fearless Prime Minister, prior to the last election, formally committed his government not to increase Australia’s overall troop deployment to Iraq.

Subsequent to the election, that undertaking was once again breached. The government’s current deployment to Al Muthanna province has significantly increased the size of Australia’s overall deployment.

So not only has the government failed to honour its original undertaking to have a deployment in Iraq that would last for months rather than years, the government as it approaches the third anniversary of the Iraq invasion, has decided to increase its Iraq deployment as well.

In overall terms, therefore, the government’s Iraq scorecard is looking a little bleak. And that is before we turn to the political and security prospects for the year ahead.

Iraq - Political Prospects

There are a range of views as to how Iraq’s constitutional referendum on 15 October will go.

The draft constitution itself has been the subject of great political controversy within Iraq - between the Sunni, the Shias and the Kurds.

The final version of the draft represented a compromise between Shia and Kurdish leaders - but a compromise which did not incorporate key concerns of the Sunni minority.

The constitution is also silent on the detail of how precisely a number of critical political institutions will be constituted and how they will operate. These include:

• The operation of the future Federation Council (effectively Iraq’s upper house); • The powers of the Federal Supreme Court; • The powers of the Supreme Judicial Council; and • The powers of the Deputy President.

Beyond these ambiguities, the draft constitution also provides for an uncertain process by which any combination of a number of governorates can be combined into a region. The draft constitution is clear on the status of the Kurdish region. But it is unclear on how other future regions may be formed - including the possibility of the emergence of a “mega region” in the Shia south. This of course is also of direct concern to the Sunni minority, given that 60 per cent of Iraq’s 26 million people are Shias.

Adding to these Sunni concerns are the powers of the regions themselves - either currently, or prospectively constituted. Under the draft, regions are, for example, responsible for their own internal security through “police, security and regional guards”. This in fact represents a confirmation of the existing arrangements surrounding the various militias which have been established in both the Kurdish and Shia-controlled areas of the country.

A related concern on the powers of the regions is the text of the draft constitution which stipulates that the “Federal Government will administer oil and gas extracted from current fields in cooperation with the governments of the producing regions and provinces on the condition that the revenues are distributed fairly in a manner compatible with the population distribution throughout the country”. This formulation leaves open the prospect that for fields yet to be exploited, there will be no role for the central government at all.

Another concern arising from the draft constitution from the perspective of the Sunni minority is its explicit provision that outlaws the “Saddamist Baath”. This provision echoes the Coalition Provisional Authority’s “de-Baathification” process implemented following the invasion. The concern of the Sunni minority has been that this provision almost by definition precludes Sunni elements from participating in high political office in the new Iraq.

Finally, the Sunnis are concerned that the draft constitution inadequately deals with the national identity of Iraq. The draft states that Iraq is “a founding member of the Arab League and is committed to its charter”. However the constitution, in deference to its Kurdish minority, fails to define Iraq as an Arab state.

In short, the Sunni minority fear that if the current constitution is adopted, it will significantly weaken the traditional authority of the Sunni population and furthermore will create the conditions for the eventual break-up of a federated Iraq into three separate political entities. As the International Crisis Group report of 26 September 2005 notes:

“Sunni Arabs see this as a sectarian plot that would leave them with a landlocked central region, lacking essential resources”.

The concerns of the ICG are reflected in a confidential United Nations report dated 15 September 2005, recently published in the international media, which states that the new constitution could be “a model for the territorial division of the state”.

The key question arising from these concerns about the draft Iraqi constitution is what happens if the constitution is voted down next week. The draft constitution provides that a two-thirds majority in three of Iraq’s eighteen provinces must vote against it if the constitution is to be defeated. It is uncertain whether the Sunni minority will be able to achieve this outcome - particularly given the posture adopted by the Kurds on the one hand, and the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sisani of the Shia on the other who are both in support of the current draft constitution. Nonetheless most analysts agree that passage of the draft constitution is likely to lead to a further exacerbation of the Sunni insurgency in the lead-up to the general elections of December 15 for the permanent National Assembly.

If in fact the constitution is defeated in the referendum, the same Sunni insurgency is likely to be emboldened by its political success. That in turn might give rise to further fresh elections for a new Transitional National Assembly and a further round of negotiations to re-draft the constitution. This, in turn, would have major consequences for military planners in Washington, London and Canberra.

However, the key problem confronting either outcome is the absence of an underlying political consensus across the country’s three principal ethnic and religious groupings - a consensus which was not achieved in the drafting process in August.

Iraq- Security Prospects

Iraqis of all ethnicities and religious persuasions continue to suffer under the insurgency. The insurgency is made up of a complex, decentralized and clandestine number of different groups.

The vast majority of insurgents (according to intelligence assessments around 85%) are Sunni Iraqis: former security personnel from Saddam’s regime including the Special Republican Guard, the Republican Guard, the Fedayin Saddam and the hated Mukhabarat intelligence services. They have been joined by criminal elements that have profited from Baathist coffers for the purpose of attacking the coalition.

These insurgents are motivated by a mix of Baathist ideology and money and/or Iraqi nationalism. They are drawn from the Sunni tribes that have long been intertwined in Saddam’s system of patronage and favor.

In the post war period the coalition shut these tribes out of the political process. Disenfranchised and dispossessed by the fall of the Baath regime, some of these tribes have also provided support networks for disenfranchised fighters.

These tribal and Baathist groups have until recently entertained the notion that they could return power to the Baath. Eventually disabused of this notion by the relative successes of the Shia and the Kurds in the 30 January national election, some Sunni tribal and religious leaders and lower level Baath security personnel have haltingly attempted to engage in the political process.

The remaining 15% of insurgents (although this figure see-saws as they cross in and out of Iraq along porous borders) are made up of foreign Islamist fighters - jihadists and small number of indigenous Iraqi Islamic militants.

The quantitative dimensions of the insurgency are also important to bear in mind. According to a recent report by the Strategic Centre for International Relations in Washington, about 30,000 fighters are believed to be involved in the insurgency.

Furthermore, of the estimated 3000 foreign fighters, the national break-up is also of significance:

• About 20% from Algeria;

• About 18% from Syria;

• 17% from Yemen;

• 15% from Sudan;

• 12% from Saudi Arabia;

• 5% from Egypt.

The problem for the interim Iraqi government, as well as the US-led occupation, is that however quickly foreign fighters are captured or killed, there seems to be a near infinite supply of willing jihadists still prepared to travel across Iraq’s highly porous borders to join the insurgency.

These jihadists seek not only to kill those whom they describe as the infidel American but to return Iraq to the Caliphate - according to their extremist version of the Muslim faith, a purer state of Islam, something akin to the Taliban. They reject any democratic governing structures simply as ‘wicked’.

The jihadists are responsible for the majority of the deadliest suicide bombings against Iraqi civilians. The leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, recently declared all out war against the Shia, the long oppressed majority in Iraq, considering them heretics and infidels. This statement by Al Zarqawi has arguably been one of the most significant developments in the history of the insurgency.

The Sunni fundamentalist attacks, and the growing sectarian animosity these horrific attacks cause, point to a disturbing and gradual potential for Iraq to explode into a full blown civil war between Sunni and Shia. This is of course the intent of Al Zarqawi and al-Qaeda.

The Shia have suffered countless bloody and abhorrent suicide attacks which have killed thousands of innocent civilians including religious pilgrims, women and children. While the Shia have taken the brunt of attacks, to date they have not mounted a full scale retaliation. This is largely because the senior Shia cleric Ayatollah al Sistani has consistently guided the Shia majority not to retaliate to the Sunni insurgent violence. Sistani clearly sees a Shia embrace of the democratic process as holding the until now elusive promise of genuine political power for the Iraqi Shia.

But this restraint which has held for close to two years is beginning to show cracks. Scores of Sunni religious and tribal leaders as well as former Baathists have recently been assassinated in revenge attacks. Shia militia have been accused of conducting some of these assassinations. More disturbing is the fact that many of these attacks have repeatedly been conducted by Shia in state security service uniforms - police uniforms.

While there has not been a massive uprising of Shia against their Sunni brethren - the violence is taking its toll on traditionally mixed Shia and Sunni areas. Thousands of Shia have been forced to move further south or to Baghdad after attacks by Sunni insurgents on Shia doctors, lawyers and academics, and as we have seen last week the grisly murder of Shia teachers - teaching at a largely Sunni school. The co-existence of these communities is coming unstuck and the restraint called for by their religious leaders can only hold for so long.

All of this violence and instability is a boon for Al Qaeda. The continuing violence and presence of foreign troops in Iraq has also provided Al Qaeda a fertile recruiting ground.

And worse still the continuing turmoil has proven to be a powerful tool to engage and motivate homegrown radical islamist cells throughout Europe as we have seen so clearly in the London bombings.

Although the US and coalition countries may have successfully degraded Al Qaeda leadership since September 11, Al Qaeda has evolved into a far more decentralized diffuse cell structure with loose ideological alignments to homegrown Islamist groups throughout the world.

Two and a half years later it is worth reflecting on the sober, top secret advice provided to the Australian Government by the British Joint Intelligence Committee prior to the invasion. The JIC warned that far from reducing the overall terrorist threat, an invasion of Iraq would increase it. It’s worth quoting the advice provided back in February 2003, one month before the war:

“The JIC (that is the Joint Intelligence Committee which is made up of the British intelligence chiefs) assessed that al-Qaida and associated groups continued to represent by far the greatest terrorist threat to Western interests, and that threat would be heightened by military action against Iraq.”

Once again, this was advice that John Howard chose not only to ignore - but not to pass on to the Australian public before going to war. Instead, John Howard was publicly telling the Australian people that invading Iraq was an essential part of the war against terrorism. The irony of all this is that the potency of the

insurgency - fuelled by the influx of the jihadist terrorists - now threatens the unity of the fledging democratic Iraqi state itself.

Once again I note with concern the sober warning contained in the recent policy briefing from the International Crisis Group which states:

“The US has repeatedly stated that it has a strategic interest in Iraq’s territorial integrity, but today the situation appears to be heading toward de-facto partition and full-scale civil war. Options for salvaging the situation gradually are running out.”

Security Implications Beyond Iraq

The continued insurgency within Iraq, combined with the possibility of that insurgency developing into a full scale civil war, also has implications beyond Iraq, including the political stability of other Arab states within the region.

Sunni Iraqis, and their natural allies the Sunni Arab states fear that after centuries of oppression of the Shia, the emergence of a Shia ‘crescent of power’ across the Middle East.

It is certainly the case that the events of the past two years in Iraq have contributed to a significant Shia political renaissance. This long oppressed minority of the Muslim world have made substantial political gains not only in

Iraq where they are majority, but also in Lebanon where Hezbollah made advances in the recent elections and to a lesser degree in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states.

Sunni Arabs fear that Shia populations will aggressively agitate for greater roles in government and political decision-making, threatening their regimes’ security and political stability. The rising fears among the Sunni leaders of Arab states - is

that the “Shia crescent” geographically correlates with the richest oil fields in the world. If you look at a map that superimposes the demographic and religious composition of the inhabitants you will see that the Shia Muslim minority reside

above the richest oil reserves in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Iraq, while the Iranian Shia majority dominate their country’s oil wealth. In the Arab world, “God favoured the Shia with oil” is a popular saying.

Increasing Shia political power is perceived by the Sunnis as a threat to the Sunni oil kingdoms of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain that are commensurate to the oppression of their large Shia populations.

A Sunni monarchy rules over a Shia majority in Bahrain and faced down a violent insurrection in the mid 1990s.

In Saudi Arabia limited municipal elections were championed by the relatively reform minded King Abdallah. These elections especially in the newly formed municipal council of Qatif, which encompasses the Al Kaik facility and the bulk of Saudi oil reserves, have given some voice to the political demands of the 15% Saudi Shia minority. Saudi leaders and conservative clerics are worried that the Shia gains in Iraq will rekindle the social unrest in Al Qatif that was sparked by the Islamic republic of Iran in 1979. At the time, Saudi Shia uprisings following the Iranian revolution resulted in the death of 40 people, and several now-defunct Shia militant groups conducted bombings at Aramco sites throughout the 1980s.

Underlying these strategic concerns is a deep seated hatred of Shia by key elements of the conservative Saudi Sunni religious establishment. Saudi clerics on state-run television, in the printed press and at public fora, rail against the heresy of the Shia counting them worse than the “Christian or Jew”.

Sunni fears of the Shia, both political and theological, are manifested in the Sunni religious establishments’ support for the Sunni minority in Iraq and, by extension, the Sunni insurgency. While Sunni states and the Arab League (with

the possible exception of Syria) do not directly assist the insurgents in Iraq, they have nevertheless withheld support for the US and Coalition reconstruction efforts in Iraq and have weighed in on behalf of their Iraqi Sunni brethren throughout the fractured political process. Many Sunni Arab states in the region see the chaotic US and Coalition intervention in Iraq as a possible precursor to instability in their own countries.

Sunnis also fear that democratic structures in Iraq will not only prevent the growth of Shia Islamist power and influence but will instead only accelerate it. After the 30 January election, Iraq became the first modern Arab state ever to be led by Shia. Many Sunni Arab leaders in both Iraq and across the region are wary that the long oppressed Shia throughout the region will be encouraged and empowered by the political reality of a Shia-dominated Iraqi government.

Prime Minister Ibrahim al Jaafari’s transitional government exacerbated Sunni fears of a “Shia crescent” by enhancing Iraq’s bilateral economic, energy and other ties with the Shia Islamic Republic of Iran: • Iraq’s Shia oil minister is reportedly promoting construction of an export

pipeline for petroleum from Basra to the Iranian port city of Abadan; • Abdel Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of one of the two major Shia religious parties in Iraq, has also advocated paying Iran billions in reparations for damage done in the Iraq-Iran war; • Furthermore, on 7 July, the Iranian and Iraqi defence Ministers reportedly

signed an agreement on military co-operation that would have Iranians train the Iraqi military.

If in fact a Shia-dominated Iraq (or a separated Shia south in the event of a fractured Iraqi federation) forms a much closer political alignment with Iran, the strategic implications of any such re-alignment from the perspective of the US and broader Western interests would be significant.

Overall, therefore, the Shia-Sunni divide within Iraq may well have significant political and security implications beyond Iraq, and across the wider Middle East.

This leaves to one side the implications arising from any fracturing of the Iraqi federation arising from the emergence of an independent Kurdistan - resulting in turn in the significant exacerbation of political and potentially military tensions with Turkey.

And this also leaves to one side the implications arising from all the above on global oil production and price. I will return to this topic in a separate address.

In short, the future of the Sunni/Shia/Kurdish compact within Iraq has potentially profound political, strategic and economic implications beyond Iraq - and not necessarily of the type foreshadowed by John Howard with his doctrine of domino democracy across the wider Middle East.

The training of Iraqi Security forces

There has been much debate, both within Iraq, the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia on the training of the new Iraqi army, police service as well as other elements of the new Iraqi security forces. The security challenges facing Iraq are considerable given the depths of the sectarian divide within the country; the continued supply of foreign insurgents; as well as the upcoming tensions of the referendum, election and post-election political processes.

A key element in the debate in Washington, London and Canberra has been the quantity and quality of Iraqi forces being trained by foreign military and police trainers. There are at present approximately 140,000 US troops in Iraq. There are still, however, no reliable estimates of the total size of the recently trained, new Iraqi security forces. This has become a matter of major political debate in the United States Congress last week when US military leaders appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

General George Casey, the US Commander in Iraq, informed the US Senate that there was at present only 1 fully autonomous Iraqi battalion capable of independent operations. This had been reduced from the previous figure of three autonomous Iraqi battalions before. A battalion is approximately 700 troops all

up. General Casey’s remarks contrasted significantly with official statements earlier this year on the state of the new Iraqi army.

General Casey was further quizzed on the incompatibility of the current state of preparedness of the new Iraqi army against his own statement earlier this year that Iraqi preparedness would be such as to support a “fairly substantial” pullout of US forces beginning by the middle of next year.

Parallel to the problems being encountered in the training of the new Iraqi army is the continuing role played by the various militias operating in Kurdistan and in the Shia south. Those concerned about Iraq’s security future point to the size

of these armed militia; their loyalty and command structures (the Kurdish “peshmerga” in the north, in addition to rival Shia militia in the south); as well as

the draft constitutional provisions which grant a high level of autonomy to the internal security needs of the region.

Furthermore, in the event of any fundamental breakdown in the federal compact within Iraq, there are grave fears that the Kurdish and Shia elements of the new Iraqi army would then dissipate- devolving back to their respective sectarian and regional loyalties and structures.

In other words, there are many open questions for which we as yet have no definitive answers from our own government on the overall rate of preparedness of the new Iraqi army. These are questions that now demand answers.

Timetable for US withdrawal

Having recently travelled to the United States and spoken to many politicians, policy makers and analysts engaged on the Iraq question, the prosecution of the Iraq war remains a major matter of public debate.

There is a growing debate within and without the Administration on the desirable timetable for a reduction in - followed by the irreversible withdrawal of - US troops from Iraq.

Many leading Republicans are openly challenging the effectiveness of the current US military strategy in Iraq- including the effectiveness of the training program for the new Iraqi security forces.

Beyond the Administration, leading conservative commentators are also beginning to challenge the Administration’s policy. Last month the leading conservative commentator, George Will, stated that US hopes for democracy in Iraq were “delusional”.

Also in September, US media reported a statement by Major General Douglas Lute, Director of Operations of US Central Command, when asked about the success of the military training program and the timetable for withdrawal. General Lute was quoted as saying:

“We believe at some point that in order to break this dependence on the .. Coalition, you simply have to back off and let the Iraqis step forward”.

Add to these factors the impact of Hurricane Katrina, increasingly intense debates about the size of the US budget deficit, the human and financial cost of the war; as well as the fact that we are now only 12 months out from the mid-term elections for the House and the Senate, there is now an increasingly acute

discussion within the political and foreign policy elite in Washington on two core questions:

• When should the United States exit Iraq; and • What benchmarks (political, constitutional, or security-related) should be used to justify such an exit?

Implications for Australia

So what does all of this mean for Australia?

At present you gain the distinct impression that all of this is a debate that John Howard would prefer not to have.

Instead, we have a continuation of John Howard’s official mantra: to stay militarily committed to Iraq “until the job is done”.

Any debate on this subject is rejected by the Prime Minister as simply a case of his critics simply wanting to “cut and run”.

Of course, all of this begs the fundamental question of what “staying until the job is done” actually means.

John Howard has consistently refused to define what that might mean- as if the question is somehow regarded as an impertinent intrusion on his sense of vice-regal prerogative.

Instead, the Australian Parliament, public and press are simply administered political platitudes from the Prime Minister: a rolling morality play between staying until “the job is done” on the one hand and “cut and run” on the other.

The purpose of my address tonight is to begin to signal a new phase in our debate with the government on Iraq. We simply don’t intend to allow them to continue to brush aside the hard questions on Iraq. Particularly when Australia

has such large national security interests at stake - not to mention the wellbeing of our troops in the field.

Here are the basic questions that the Prime Minister needs to start answering - not evading - on Iraq.

First, does the Prime Minister agree with his Foreign Minister’s statement that the security situation in Iraq is very much improved. Or is this simply another case of public, political spin? After the WMD debacle of earlier this year, the

Australian people now demand that their government start to level with them on what is actually happening in Iraq today. What in fact is this real security situation like in Iraq on the ground now? How many Iraqi civilians have in fact been killed? And why is this some sort of national secret? What are the prospects for the six months ahead?

Second, what exactly is the government’s analysis of the prospects for civil war in Iraq. The Prime Minister’s response to this earlier this year was that he simply didn’t think that it was likely. What is his view today? And what will Australia do - and the international community do - in response to a civil war if it occurs given the implications for the Iraqi civilian population? Or is that just all too hard to contemplate?

Third, what does the prospect of a civil war between the Sunni and the Shia mean for the security situation in Al Muthanna province where our Australian troops are currently deployed? Many have noted with concern the recent spate of violence against the British in Basra in the traditionally subdued Shia south. Is this a portent of a spread of a Sunni-Shia struggle to Al Muthanna as well?

Fourth, given Al Muthanna’s proximity to Saudi Arabia, what are the particular new dangers faced by Australian troops from foreign jihadists arriving into Iraq from Saudi Arabia? Has this, together with other compounding factors concerning the Sunni-Shia tensions in Southern Iraq, as well as Sunni-Shia tensions within Saudi Arabia itself, significantly changed the security circumstances in Al Muthanna province? Is the level of protection available to Australian troops on deployment still adequate?

Fifth, what has Canberra been told by Washington about the real timetable for US troop withdrawal from Iraq? What criteria have been set for any such withdrawal? Do those criteria relate to the political and constitutional process? Or do they relate to the quantity and quality of trained troops capable of autonomous deployment by the new Iraqi army? If so, what are the thresholds that need to be achieved?

Sixth, what real timetable is the Australian Government now contemplating for withdrawal. Are statements attributed to the Australian military about an Australian drawdown next May accurate? How precisely is the government to define “when the job is done”? Or is the government simply making all this up as it goes along?

And finally, what does all of the above really mean in terms of the impact on Australia and Australian interests as an al-Qaeda terrorist target?

This is the beginning of a new phase in the Australian political debate in Iraq.

Our responsibility as the Opposition is to hold this government accountable for its foreign policy actions - particularly when the stakes are so high.

And that is precisely what we intend to do in the weeks and months ahead.