Rudd to keep 900 troops in Iraq

February 29, 2008

On February 19, Australian Defence Force chief Angus Houston told a Senate committee hearing that planning was underway for a mid-year withdrawal of the ADF's 550 soldiers based in Iraq's southern Dhi Qar province, as well as 65 army trainers. However, their withdrawal will leave in place 60% of the ADF personnel assigned to the Iraq war.

Houston's announcement was presented by much of the corporate media as the Rudd government's implementation of Labor's pre-election pledge for a "phased withdrawal of our troops" from Iraq by June 2008. Reuters news agency, for example, reported that Kevin Rudd "promised to bring home frontline troops amid polls showing 80 percent of Australians oppose Iraq [war] involvement".

However, the Rudd government is just as committed as the previous Liberal-National Coalition government to supporting Washington's war in Iraq. This was made clear by Houston's Senate committee testimony. He said that the planned troop withdrawal from Iraq would have been carried out this year even if there hadn't been a change of government.

This was confirmed by Coalition shadow foreign minister Andrew Robb. He told the ABC TV's Insiders program on February 24 that plans had been drawn up before the November federal election to pull the Australian combat troops out of southern Iraq this year. "We'd already started discussions with the Americans on that front", Robb said. Publicly however Prime Minister John Howard had repeatedly denounced Labor's pre-election troop withdrawal pledge as a capitulation to "terrorism" and a "betrayal" of the 57-year-old US-Australia military alliance.

Houston told the Senate committee that Australia currently has 1540 military personnel involved in the Iraq war, and it had
had spent $1.56 billion on war from July 2003 to July 2007. He said the Australian government was committed to spend a further $598 million on the war until at least 2010.

The Howard government sent 2000 troops to back the US and British military in the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, and then rapidly withdrew most of them. However, with US troop fatalities mounting in the face of growing Iraqi guerrilla attacks in central and western Iraq, Howard deployed 450 ADF combat troops in April 2005 to Iraq's sparsely populated southern Muthanna province.

The deployment was more a gesture of political support for Washington's war effort than a significant military contribution. The ADF combat contingent — stationed at a former US Army camp seven kilometres outside Samawah, the provincial capital — was assigned to help British troops provide protection for a contingent of Japanese military engineers.

After the Japanese left and the British abandoned the camp in May 2006, the ADF's Muthanna Task Force was renamed the "Overwatch Battle Group (West)" and relocated in July 2006 to the huge US Tallil airbase near the city of Nasiriyah, 310 kilometres south-east of Baghdad. Occupying 30 square kilometres, the Tallil airbase is protected by 22km of security perimeter.

The defence department's website described the principal mission of the Tallil-based ADF "battle group" as providing "a security overwatch role" for Muthanna and Dhi Qar provinces "as part of a larger Coalition force". In other words, it has been a small reserve force with no active combat duties.

Associated Press reported on February 20 that after the ADF force was withdrawn from Dhi Qar province, Australia's "major military contribution" to the war was "two surveillance aircraft and a warship. Australia will also retain its 100-member security detachment in Baghdad which guards Australian diplomats. A number of Australian officers attached to the coalition headquarters will also remain."

In fact, the latter group, comprising 95 ADF personnel, are Australia's most important contribution to the US-led coalition's war effort, assisting US generals in supervising daily operations by the 150,000 US troops occupying Iraq.

The ADF personnel assigned to the coalition HQ inside Baghdad's highly fortified Green Zone were described in the December 13 edition of the ADF's Army newspaper as helping the US-led Multi-National Forces (MNF) "shape the future of Iraq".

The paper reported that Australian Colonel Tim Pickford was the assistant chief of staff for the MNF's Strategic Operations Centre in Baghdad. He told Army that he "attends conferences on behalf of my [US] commander, look after his office, keep him fully briefed on daily operations and prepare evening reports for him". He described the MNF HQ as a "huge" operation, "running one of the largest counter-insurgency operations in the world".

On Insiders, Robb indicated that the Coalition would support Labor's limited troop withdrawal. Robb noted: "I think you can see the smoothness with which the US alliance has transferred to the Rudd government."

This, of course, is no surprise. The ALP has supported the imperialist alliance between Canberra and Washington since its formal establishment in 1951. In his November 24 election-night victory speech, Rudd reaffirmed Labor's support for the alliance, extending "greetings tonight to our great friend and ally the United States".

During a visit to Washington at the end of January, foreign affairs minister Stephen Smith said that the pullout of the Tallil-based ADF force would be done in such a way as to "absolutely minimise" any problems for the US-led coalition, and that the Rudd government was ready to consider other ways of supporting Washington's puppet Iraqi government.

Smith said that after high-level talks with US officials he was confident that the troop withdrawal would do nothing "to disturb either the good working relationship between the current [US] administration and the new Australian government, nor to be anything of any significance in terms of a long-standing, enduring alliance" between Canberra and Washington.

Smith also reaffirmed the commitment Rudd made during a visit to Kabul on December 24 to maintain the 900-strong Australian troop deployment in Afghanistan, instigated by the Howard government. Rudd declared that the Australian troops would be staying in Afghanistan "for the long haul".

US war secretary Robert Gates told reporters while en route to Australia on February 22 that he anticipated "continuity" in US-Australian affairs. He refused to criticise the limited ADF troop withdrawal from Iraq, saying: "We're concerned about the stress on our own forces, the Australians are confronting that challenge themselves", he said.

Following talks in Canberra with Smith and Australian defence minister Joel Fitzgibbon, Gates told a February 23 joint press conference that the US "has no better partner and no stronger ally than Australia".

Smith announced that Australia could soon join Washington's proposed ballistic missile defence system, breaking with Labor's former opposition to the project. "We don't want to deprive ourselves sensibly of any capacity which might be of benefit to our troops", Smith said.

In 1972, the US and the Soviet Union signed the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, following mutual recognition that deployment of a ballistic missile defence system by one country would give it a first-strike capability by reducing the effects of retaliation to "acceptable" levels. The treaty was in force until 2002, when US President George Bush unilaterally withdrew from it and established the Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency.

The 2007 ALP national platform states that any ballistic missile defence system could "derail world progress towards nuclear disarmament and have serious consequences for Australia's national security". Both Russia and China regard the US push to set up ballistic missile defence "shields" in central Europe and eastern Asia as aimed at undermining the deterrent capability of their nuclear missile arsenals, and both have warned that the US missile shield will lead to a new nuclear arms race.

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