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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Defence
MEDIA RELEASE

 
15/04/2003Departmental 150403/03
 

Transcript

Media Briefing Australia's contribution to Global Operations

Tuesday 15 April 2003

 

MINISTER ROBERT HILL: I thought I'd take the opportunity to make a few political comments because we're obviously in the final stages of the conflict as far as it concerns securing areas that have been under regime control.

You could say that really it was earlier last week that, from a central command perspective, the regime lost control.

Really there hasn't been any evidence since then of directions from the top. But obviously as we all know, since then, there have been command elements but within various cities that have been providing some resistance. And the last of those cities is in the process of falling at the moment - Tikrit about which there's been lots of information overnight and Al Ramadi that we're expecting probably within the next 24 hours.

Whilst that means that in terms of securing these areas vis-à-vis the regime, it doesn't mean that there won't be on-going skirmishes. In fact we expect that to continue for some time. Various militia and paramilitary and others using a range of unconventional methods are likely to continue to attack Coalition forces.

Unfortunately therefore remains a significantly dangerous area and each day the Coalition is continuing to suffer some casualties. We hope however that it won't be too long before we can say that those unconventional elements have also been brought under control and there can be the full concentration on the rehabilitation that we would wish to be the case.

Clearly we can't - we as a Coalition - can't wait until we are satisfied that the areas are totally secure. There are humanitarian and rehabilitation needs, and we are, in parallel with the final securing process, implementing those - meeting those needs as they become apparent.

I guess from a Government, the Government's perspective, we were hoping for a short war. It looks as if that is going to be the outcome. We are pleased that weapons of mass destruction were not used within the war. It was our intention to remove them by going into Iraq to remove the threat of the use of weapons of mass destruction.

And thirdly, although there have been inevitable civilian casualties, we are pleased with the efforts that have been made by the Coalition to keep civilian casualties to an absolute minimum.

The second point I wanted to make was in relation to the weapons of mass destruction. A very major job remains to search some hundreds of sites that have been listed, to interrogate those who may have information on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and their weapons programs, to build our knowledge base of that program to again better, to ensure that for the future, that we don't face that threat.

The Prime Minister mentioned last week that the Australian Government was prepared to provide a component to a Coalition sponsored group of specialists that will continue that task for some time. We have now settled on a Defence team of some 12 specialists who will be going to Iraq in the next week or so to make a contribution on Australia's behalf to ensuring that full benefit is taken in terms of avoiding a threat from weapons of mass destruction in the future.

They are the type of specialists that we've been able to provide in the past to such bodies as UNMOVIC.
The third matter that I wanted to mention was really to congratulate all relevant parties on Operation Baghdad Assist. We from a Government perspective really thought it was tremendous that for us to be able to make a decision on Saturday morning to provide medical supplies into Baghdad when the need had been made apparent to Government, and to have those medical supplies actually landing at Baghdad International Airport within 24 hours was really an exceptional piece of work.

Not only do we want to congratulate the ADF but all of the other agencies, Emergency Management Australia, the DFAT, PM&C, State agencies that helped, the Health Department in New South Wales and Health officials in Perth, and also a number of civilian bodies that leapt at the request.

Not only have we been able to provide that aircraft into Baghdad, but two aircraft from Australia will arrive in the region tonight, Australian time. We expect that they will be - that the equipment will be - supplies and equipment then will be trans-shipped also into Baghdad.

But if it's become apparent over the last 24 hours that the medical need is greater in one or other of the Iraqi cities, then we would have the opportunity to send the supplies into those cities, if that's where the greatest need lies.

So we think it's been a significant contribution and what's been, as I said really exceptional about it - exceptional about the exercise was how quickly it was able to be implemented successfully and the Government does want to take this opportunity to thank all of those who contributed to that outstanding result.

The fourth matter I wanted to mention is that, in the same way as we were able to provide for that niche need, we have indicated in the past that we would be interested in supporting other niche opportunities in relation to the reconstruction, rehabilitation of Iraq. And a request has come in for us to supply a military component, a RAAF component, of air traffic controllers. We expect to work within Baghdad International Airport.

The Government has agreed in principle today to support a contribution of air traffic controllers. Obviously the orderly flow of support aircraft into the major cities of Iraq is going to be critically important in achieving the humanitarian and rehabilitation outcomes that we would like within a short period of time. And that's why we've decided to support that particular niche capability.

We are expecting the full details of that to be settled within the next 24 hours or so and then we'll be able to provide a detailed report of how many military personnel will be going; when they'll be going; and further details of the task that will be assigned to them.

In relation to other Phase 4 military contributions to the rehabilitation of Iraq, they are still being considered by the Government and we'll be making announcements on that in due course.

In relation to issues of political governance and the Tylill* meeting that's taking place I think tonight, Australian time, my colleague the Minister for Foreign Affairs, will be making a public statement on that today.

The last point that I wanted to make is that, consistent with what we've said in the past, and that is that principal war fighting components in Iraq, the Special Forces and the FA-18 Hornet aircraft and their crews, we hope will be able to return to Australia in the not too distant future. It's our objective to get them back as soon as reasonably possible after the major elements of the conflict have been completed.

And in relation to further detail on the military side and the contribution of Australian Forces, I will hand over to General Cosgrove.

GENERAL PETER COSGROVE: Thanks, Minister.


Good morning. A relatively short brief for you this morning from me as there have been no major incidents involving our people over the past 24 hours. And I'm happy to report that, as you would hope to hear from me, all our people are safe and accounted for.

Later today as the Minister mentioned, the United States will host a meeting at the Tyllil air base near Nasariyah in Southern Iraq. This meeting will be hosted by General J. Garner who heads the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Affairs and it's intended to be the first of a series of meetings to discuss the key issues in establishing democratic governance in Iraq.

And you'll get more detail on this or the media will get more details of this from our Foreign Minister.


You will recall from previous briefings that Australia will have five staff in the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Affairs from a number of departments across government. I'm pleased today to announce that the Defence representative will be Colonel Keith Shollam*. Colonel Shollam is a highly experienced officer who has most recently served as the Assistant Defence Attache in Washington.

A short biography of the Colonel will be on the website later today.


Maritime operations
:

There are no significant changes to our maritime operations. HMAS Darwin remains on guardship duties in the Northern Persian Gulf while HMAS Kanimbla continues assisting clearance operations in the KAA, in the Kha Ab Allah Waterway. And meanwhile HMAS Anzac and the two Army landing craft continue their current replenishment programs.

Our Naval clearance diving team is conducting operations in the KAZ Waterway where they are currently working on the demolition of ordnance recovered from a sunken Iraqi patrol craft.

Turning to land operations:

I thought it might be useful to go over a few details regarding the operation late last week, Friday, when our Special Forces interdicted a bus carrying a large group of males attempting to leave the country. The bus was interdicted or intercepted on a road heading west out of the country. There were 59 men on the bus when it was intercepted by our troops and they were carrying a large sum of money, around $600,000 US, and documents including a letter which advised more money would be paid if Americans were killed.

These men and all their possessions were taken into custody and handed on to other Coalition Forces. They are now being processed to determine their status. Meanwhile current reconnaissance and surveillance operations inside Iraq continue.

To air operations:

Our FA-18 Hornets have continued close air support operations in the vicinity of Tikrit. Details of their current sorties are not yet available but all aircraft have returned safely to base.

Meanwhile our C-130s have continued their supply missions around the theatre of operations, and that includes of course their participation in Operation Baghdad Assist.

Yesterday Brigadier Hannan mentioned that our aircraft are no longer attacking pre-planned targets and that all missions are now controlled by a forward air controller on the ground or in the air. This change is significant. The aircraft are now entirely on call to the ground forces and all of their missions are under positive control from a ground or air observer.

This reflects both the complex situation on the ground with Coalition Forces dispersed all over the country and the fact that there are no longer any cohesive Iraqi forces.

We can expect to see the Coalition air campaign continue to reduce in scope and much of the overall force start to return to their home bases in the near future.

That concludes the military part of today's brief, and the Minister and I would be happy now to take your questions.

QUESTION: Peter O'Connor from the Associated Press. If I could ask the Minister a question on troop withdrawals? The US has said, the US is already bringing back a couple of aircraft carriers. They've brought back some bombers and they're starting to firm up timetables on troop withdrawals. Is Australia starting to draw up a timetable for withdrawal of our elements? What elements would be coming back first? And what would be the situation that would start to trigger our troops' withdrawal?

MINISTER HILL: Well as I've said, we wish, particularly the principal war fighting elements to return as quickly as possible which was consistent with the undertaking we made at the start of the conflict. We are talking about a possible timetable but we're not quite in a position to confirm the detail today. Hopefully we'll be able to do so in the near future.

It is true that the United States announced the two carrier groups will be moving out of the theatre but that still leaves three huge carrier groups there. There's a fourth, I think, not far away as well. I think the British have announced that they are looking at a timetable for withdrawal of at least some parts of their forces.

So hopefully in the not too distant future, we'll be able to make public a timetable.


QUESTION: Sorry, just to follow that up. What would be the first elements to start coming back? Would it be the Naval, the RAAF, or would it be Special Forces?

MINISTER HILL: Well two ships are coming back as we've announced previously. They'll be leaving the theatre soon and it's about a three week voyage, as I understand it, to return. As the General has been saying, the work for the Hornets is starting to reduce and therefore we don't expect that task to go on for too much longer, so they will be clearly among the first of the forces' components to be withdrawn.

There's quite a difficult logistics task in getting the aircraft back to Australia. That'll take a little time. And thirdly, we've always taken an attitude with our Special Forces that, as soon as Special Forces' tasks are completed, Special Forces should be returned. And of course they have been a very busy part of the ADF over the last few years with three separate rotations into Afghanistan and so on. So we would expect them to be among the earlier of the withdrawals.

QUESTION: David Spears from Sky News, Minister, a question to you as well. How concerned are you at reports that Syria may be housing Iraq's regime leaders, weapons of mass destruction and also continuing to supply Iraq with any weapons? And is Australia prepared to join the US in the use of any force against Syria?

MINISTER HILL: Well I'm obviously - I'm disappointed. I'm disappointed for Syria if it has been continuing to assist the regime during the course of the conflict, as is being suggested by some parties. We have obviously had some evidence of the movement of Syrian personnel into Iraq during the conflict and some evidence of the movement of Syrian personnel now out of Iraq.

The extent to which they've been moving with authority of the Syrian regime is questionable. I think what the United States is really saying to Syria is that, with the fall of the regime in Baghdad, there is now an opportunity for doing things in the Middle East in a different way. There's a new opportunity for people in terms of liberty and freedom and better economic opportunities. But that that can't succeed if the background is going to be one of weapons of mass destruction which third parties obviously regard as threatening.

And really, as I interpret what's being said in the United States, they are again saying to Syria, you know, we're disappointed to be hearing that you may not have heeded this message, that we would urge you nevertheless to now heed it, and also to go down a different path which is one that doesn't include weapons of mass destruction and doesn't support regime leaders that were part of such administrations as that of Saddam Hussein.

In relation to the use of force, I've heard no suggestion of any use of force.


QUESTION: Mark Forbes from The Age, Minister. Do you have any or concede that there will be issues over the legitimacy of the weapons inspection process without it occurring under the UN banner, given the fact that independent experts from the United Nations have previously criticised and rejected some of the intelligence on weapons of mass destruction that has been already present by the US and other allies?

MINISTER HILL: Some will criticise it. Yes, I expect that will be the case. But we're not so much interested in how others might perceive the process. We're interested in a process that can best assure us that the threat of weapons of mass destruction has been removed and that's why we're interested in contributing to an element that will have this task of searching all of the remaining sites and interviewing scientists and so forth.

In relation to that task being pursued by the UN, that doesn't stop the UN from pursuing it if the Security Council is of a mind to. But I don't think the Security Council is in a state at the moment where it would really pick up the challenge and get the job done in any event. And we can't afford to wait. If we wait, the evidence, the opportunity, the window of opportunity will be lost; the evidence will go cold.

QUESTION: Don Alford from AAP, Senator Hill. You've made it clear this morning, the SAS will be among the earlier elements out. Have the Americans or the Coalition partners in fact requested that they stay on?

MINISTER HILL: I don't think they've done that in any formal sense but they don't have to in that we know the Americans would like our Special Forces everywhere at any time, at all times. So they may not have specifically requested it because they know it would cause us some embarrassment because we said that they would be returning home at the end of the conflict.

QUESTION: So it's not a question of having to regretfully decline an American request?


MINISTER HILL: No, it hasn't worked that way. But we do understand that there will be a need for a stabilisation force of significant capability for some time within Iraq. And we are looking at how we can make a contribution. But as we've said before, we think identifying a number of niche areas where there is a specialist need that we can fill would be the best way in which we can provide that contribution.

QUESTION: The SAS are not a niche in that sense?


MINISTER HILL: No, we think that their specific - the tasks that are most appropriate to their specific skills will no longer apply in Iraq in the future. It's more of a stabilisation task. Maintaining the security task that's going to be need for the future.

QUESTION: While I've got this, can I ask you please General Cosgrove about the SAS? A lot of their activities recently appear to have been sort of highway patrol. Is - are you content that this is the best use of their highly specialised skills? They would seem to be the most highly trained traffic cops in the history of the world.

GENERAL COSGROVE: Well the highway patrol tasks that you refer to are the ones that you know about. And I can assure you that they're using their skills in the full range, the full range of their capability. And I'm very content that they've been an absolute must for the Coalition to have surveillance in the areas where it needed surveillance; sensitive site exploitation where that was needed; to assist in ensuring that theatre ballistic missiles were not employed. So there's a range of tasks which were very high priority for the Coalition and our Special Forces, especially our Special Air Service part of the Special Forces, have been doing that very well indeed.

And just to pick up on your earlier question, to put any thoughts of a cessation of tasking for our Special Air Service in a context, you should note that without details the highest level Special Forces, that is the elite of the Special Forces from the Coalition partners, they're also going through this same evolution of considering and assessing and, where necessary, planning the repatriation of some levels of their Special Forces.

So you should see any thought that we might have in that regard as being in a context.


QUESTION: Mark Phillips from New Limited, Senator Hill, just another follow-up question on weapons of mass destruction. Just with - you mentioned the urgency of this window of opportunity to locate weapons. Is there also a credibility issue, that if weapons aren't located very shortly, that there's a credibility issue about the whole operation.

And just secondly, just there seems to have - in one sense this has been a change in the language in the last week from the mission being whether there are actually physical evidence of weapons to whether the threat, the hypothetical threat, that the regime could have used weapons if they were available? Can you just comment on that change of language?

MINISTER HILL: Well we're not sending specialists to address a credibility issue. The advice of the experts is that, still is, that Saddam Hussein had these weapons of mass destruction and had on-going weapons programs. And if that is the case, then there is in terms of removing the threat, there still is work to be done. And that's why we're sending these experts.

Now that was the principal reason why we participated in this conflict. I see I was criticised by saying that there was the incidental benefit of providing freedom to the Iraqi people. I mean incidental in terms that that wasn't the primary purpose for which we entered Iraq. But incidental though it may be, it's an enormous benefit I think in itself to the Iraqi people and a very important lesson to the region as a whole.

Consistent with what I said a moment ago about providing an alternative way of doing business in that region of the world, a region that's so strategically important. What was the second part, I'm sorry? Does that answer it?

QUESTION: I just - there's a sense of language...


MINISTER HILL
: Never ask a journalist whether it answers the question.


QUESTION: ...a sense that the language has slightly changed from not necessarily the physical, physically finding weapons of mass destruction but that, because the regime has gone, the threat that hypothetically if there had been weapons has been removed. I'm just wondering if you could comment on this. It's...

MINISTER HILL: Well my language hasn't changed, and I've agreed to the ADF being part of this force element that has got the task of completing the weapons of mass destruction task. Because you know I want to be satisfied, as I'm sure other governments want to be satisfied that the threat has been removed. It's critically important that we are so satisfied because that's the principal reason for which we sent troops.

QUESTION: If I could ask General Cosgrove a question? General, in your previous tasks, you've obviously become very familiar with responsibilities under the Geneva Convention, and Australia is both of an invading force and now part of an occupying force, has key responsibility in that regard.

Those responsibilities have clearly not been met, particularly in cases such as the looting of the Baghdad Museum, an event that's appalled the Arab world. That is a clear breach of the Geneva Convention. I also understand it breaches other protocols and conventions regarding protecting sites of cultural and historical significance.

As a formal member of this invading and occupying force, must Australia share some of the shame and blame for that? And how could that have happened, given that we were aware of the significance and value of that particular institution?

GENERAL COSGROVE: Well I repudiate the sense of that question. I think that the whole nature of what has occurred has been a tremendous step forward for the Iraqi people. And while I think any breach of any law in the aftermath of their liberation is to be regretted, I think you draw a very long bow in sheeting that home to private soldiers in flak jackets standing on street corners.

I also take that flow on to Australian Forces as being - I think there's a disconnect there. Our people have behaved impeccably and continue to do so. I think you see the Coalition Forces in Baghdad doing their utmost as their force levels increase to bring law and order to the streets, but in a way which is not oppressive of the whole of the newly liberated population.

I see what happened in Baghdad as being something that was perhaps a pressure cooker, with the lid released, and I can imagine the attitude of the Iraqi people. And I think that some of those things were tremendously regrettable - the sacking of buildings and the burning of buildings and I think we're all sad to see the historical artefacts be damaged or stolen. But to sheet that home to some level of negligence or law breaking by the Coalition, I think, is drawing a long bow and I reject it.

QUESTION: Peter O'Connor from the Associated Press again, Minister Hill. In your previous comments on the weapons inspections, you've disparaged the UN. I assumed you were talking about the Security Council, but nevertheless the UN still has a very experienced administration machinery on weapons inspections. Do you - does the Government oppose the use of that weapons inspection machinery in Iraq or are you - I don't - I just want you to clarify your position.

MINISTER HILL: We don't oppose it. What I'm saying is I don't think the Security Council is in the shape that would be necessary to give the appropriate mandate. And so the experts - take us as an example - so the experts, we don't want to lose the value of the experts and the tasks, so we will utilise them directly rather than indirectly through the United Nations.

QUESTION: So you're saying you will use the UNMOVIC machinery but not under the mandate of the United Nations, is that what you're saying?

MINISTER HILL: Well it's not the UNMOVIC machinery in terms of the reporting back process. It's the, you know, UNMOVIC was made up of a suite of experts provided by a range of different countries. If the Security Council is not of a mind at the moment to drive the weapons program, weapons inspection program, we can't afford to wait and therefore we will do it directly. And we think we can get - in terms of wanting to satisfy ourselves that the threat no longer remains - we can achieve our objectives that way.

QUESTION: So just to further clarify again, if the UN appeared to be able to get its act together and offered its experience in this, would you oppose that or would you support that?

MINISTER HILL: Well it's sort of moving into Downer's patch a little bit. But the point from our perspective that the UN has not got its act together in that regard. It's not whether they would be able to. They have not and therefore we can't afford to wait. We think that would be a great mistake.

So, and you know that sort of reflects the difficulties that the Security Council faces over a whole range of issues that are still current in relation to Iraq. Obviously, it would be very useful in terms of the humanitarian assistance and you can see the World Bank is still unsure of exactly how it should act without appropriate UN resolutions. We would like to see the UN Security Council, even at this very late stage, take its responsibility and provide some leadership in that regard.

But whilst the key players on the Security Council remain so divided, it looks unlikely that that's going to occur at least in the short term.

OFFICIAL: Ladies and gentlemen, we'll take one more question.


QUESTION: David Spears, Sky News, Minister. You indicated this was had been a success because of its duration and the limited loss of civilian lives. Would Australia therefore be prepared to support the US in another pre-emptive strike, and if so, what would be the requirements? Would it simply require a state to be housing terrorists or weapons of mass destruction? What are the boundaries here now for further pre-emptive strikes?

MINISTER HILL: This was not a pre-emptive strike as such. This was an action to enforce a range of UN Security Council resolutions that had required Saddam Hussein to disarm; resolutions that had been passed over a period of 12 years. What we are doing is - what we have done and continue to do is to be part of a Coalition that is enforcing those resolutions and requiring him to act in accordance with the demands of the international community.

It became apparent that that was only going to be achieved through him being removed from office. And that has occurred and what we're now doing is ensuring that the full benefit of that in terms of avoiding a threat from weapons of mass destruction and also in terms of giving the Iraq people a better opportunity is achieved.

OFFICIAL: Thanks very much, ladies and gentlemen.
* * End * *



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