Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd fulfilled his campaign pledge to withdraw Australian “combat” forces from Southern Iraq on June 2008. Rudd used the occasion to condemn former Prime Minister John Howard for joining the war, but US diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks show the Rudd government wanted to keep more Australian forces in Iraq than it had withdrawn.
After the withdrawal of soldiers, about 1000 Australian Defence Force (ADF) personnel remained in Iraq, including sailors on board warships in the Persian Gulf ― Australia’s contribution to the multinational Task Force 158 (TF158) guarding Iraqi oil platforms.
The remaining soldiers also included air force units, soldiers guarding Australian diplomats in Baghdad, and officers “embedded” in key positions within coalition headquarters (HQ).
Despite government spin about withdrawing all “combat forces”, the cables said some of these forces could be deployed in combat roles. One cable said, “[d]espite the withdrawal of combat forces, Rudd agreed to allow Australian forces embedded or seconded to units of other countries including the U.S. to deploy to Iraq in combat and combat support roles with those units”.
Other cables refer to TF158 as “combat forces”.
In 2007, the Iraqi government requested that the United Nations mandate, which had authorised the presence of multinational forces in Iraq since October 2003, be renewed for “one last time”. As a result, the US and other coalition countries faced the prospect of having to withdraw their troops by December 31, 2008.
Not wanting to relinquish the strategic power and control of Iraq’s resources that the occupation offered, the Bush administration had consistently refused to set a timetable for withdrawal.
In March 2008, it began negotiations with the Iraqi government on a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), which would establish a legal basis for the continuing presence of its soldiers. It would also set the terms under which they would operate after the UN mandate expired.
Australia was seeking an agreement that would cover the deployment of its forces, either by extension of the US-Iraqi agreement, or by negotiating a separate bilateral agreement with the Iraqi government.
The cables show the Australian government was demanding a “treaty-level agreement”, which would need to be ratified by the Iraqi Parliament.
A February 2008 cable from the US Embassy in Canberra reported that David Hallett of the Australian Department of Defence told the US: “The arrangement must be legally enforceable, not only on Australia but also on Iraq.”
The cable reports that Hallett said: “ADF forces must have immunity from [Iraqi] criminal and civil jurisdiction, with Australia retaining exclusive right to waive immunity.”
Immunity for its troops and private security contractors was a key US demand. Others included the power to conduct missions without approval by Iraqi authorities, use of 58 long-term bases, control of Iraqi air space up to 29,000 feet, and the power to arrest and detain any Iraqi the US claimed was a security threat.
The cables show Australia initially hoped to take advantage of US “leverage” with Iraq to get the most favourable agreement.
A cable from October 14 reported that Australian Deputy Secretary of Defence Stephen Merchant said Australia had refrained from entering into separate bilateral negotiations with Iraq, “partly to avoid introducing complications into the U.S. negotiations but also because Australia believed it would be unable to negotiate more comprehensive protections than could the U.S.”
The US had set a deadline of July 2008 to finalise the SOFA. However, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was facing rising opposition to the occupation from the Iraqi public.
Maliki was partly reliant on US backing to stay in power, but the SOFA would need to at least pay lip service to Iraqi sovereignty to pass parliament.
In June, Maliki publicly stated that the negotiations were at an impasse, because “the US demands would so deeply affect Iraqi sovereignty and this is something we can never accept … We cannot allow US forces to have the right to jail Iraqis or assume, alone, the responsibility of fighting against terrorism.”
A June 2008 cable from the US Embassy in Canberra reported that “[t]he Government of Australia … is satisfied with the pace of U.S. negotiations on a Status of Forces Agreement”.
But by October, the embassy reported that the Australian government had “registered concern at the rapidly diminishing timeline in which to meet requirements for their forces to remain in Iraq beyond 2008”.
The cable said that Australia was now seeking a “green light from the United States to begin bilateral SOFA negotiations with the Iraqi government”, a request the US promised to “take on board”.
The US and Iraqi governments finally reached agreement on a draft SOFA in October 2008. The US was forced to concede some of its key demands.
The SOFA stated that US soldiers were to be withdrawn from Iraqi urban areas by July 2009, and from all other areas by December 31, 2011.
It required US forces to hand over detainees to Iraqi authorities within 24 hours of their detention or arrest. Private security contractors would no longer be immune from Iraqi law.
Nevertheless, the agreement effectively legitimised the occupation for a further three years. It allowed US forces to continue to operate with immunity from Iraqi law, with the exception being serious offences committed by off-duty troops outside US bases.
This exception was essentially meaningless, as the troops rarely left their bases unless on duty.
Tens of thousands of Iraqis took to the streets to protest the agreement. Iraqi nationalist Muqtada al-Sadr tried to mobilise enough members of the Iraqi parliament to vote the agreement down. It was eventually ratified by the parliament on November 27, only just gaining the simple majority needed.
The unexpectedly long period of US-Iraqi negotiations left other coalition countries scrambling to make their own agreements with Iraq in the few remaining weeks of 2008.
Australia was still holding out for a “treaty-level agreement” for all its forces, including those referred to as combat forces. The Iraqi government would not accept these terms.
A December 3 cable from the US Embassy in Baghdad reported that Maliki wanted to avoid “another campaign with the various political factions in the [Council of Representatives]”. He had “made it absolutely clear … that [the Iraqi government] will not support any further agreements which require COR ratification”.
Maliki had also told the US that all non-US coalition forces could remain in Iraq in a “'non-combat’ assistance capacity” only.
The US was worried that Australia’s position would jeopardise the placement of 42 Australian officers embedded at high levels within coalition HQ. Australian officers had taken key roles in running the war from the outset, such as Major General Jim Molan who served in various positions including Deputy Chief of Staff for Strategic Operations.
Time was running out, and if Australia persisted in seeking an agreement which covered all its forces, it could end up with no agreement at all. In that event, all remaining ADF personnel, including the 42 officers, would have to be withdrawn.
The cable therefore requested that the US State Department instruct the US Embassy in Canberra to “urgently demarche the [Government of Australia] to suggest strongly that the GOA consider an exchange of diplomatic notes or other legal mechanism that does not require action by the [Council of Representatives]”.
It said that, “given PM al-Maliki's position against combat forces”, the Australian government should “focus on a security agreement covering the Australian staff officers embedded with [Multinational Force ― Iraq] only”.
The cable noted: “The Australians understand the complexity of including combat forces (TF158) in their agreement and may be willing to drop this in order to focus on the non-combat embedded officers.”
A December 5 cable from the US Embassy in Canberra reported that the Australian government still wanted a treaty-level agreement, “in order to insure that their troops are provided the same legal protection as their American colleagues”.
However, the cable reported that US contacts within the Australian government departments involved in the negotiations had “concluded that the Iraqi Prime Minister does not have the stomach to present any further bilateral agreements to the Council of Representatives this year”.
On December 16, only two weeks before the expiration of the UN mandate, the Iraqi Council of Ministers approved legislation that authorised the continuing presence of British, Australian, Romanian, Salvadoran and Estonian forces, as well as the NATO Training Mission.
Agreement for withdrawal
On December 30 the Iraqi defence ministry signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the Australian government ― not the treaty the Australian government was looking for.
The agreement only covered the activities of Australian soldiers embedded with US forces. They were permitted stay beyond the expiration of the UN mandate, but had to “fully withdraw from Iraq by no later than 31 July 2009”.
This meant that the 42 officers embedded within coalition HQ could stay, along with about 80 soldiers guarding the Australian Embassy in Baghdad whose legal status was covered by the Vienna Convention.
Since the MOU did not cover the forces within TFI58, the Australian Frigate guarding Iraqi oil platforms was redeployed to international waters.
A cable from January 16, 2009 said this resulted in a much sharper drop in the number of ADF personnel in Iraq than was achieved by Rudd’s withdrawal of the Overwatch Battle Group in June 2008. The cable says that the withdrawal of that battalion in 2008 left “in place approximately 1,000 defense personnel”, but the MOU resulted in “a further reduction in the number of personnel in-country to 120 troops”.
The embedded forces were withdrawn in 2009, as per the terms of the MOU. Soldiers guarding the Australian Embassy remained until 2011 when they were replaced by private security contractors.
[This is part II of a two-part piece. The first part can be read here.]