Rock the kasbah: Australia’s military involvement in Iraq
In June 2008, 550 Australian combat soldiers made their way home from Iraq. It was just what Prime Minister Kevin Rudd had promised. In the lead up to his election, Rudd famously described Australia’s involvement in Iraq as the “single greatest error” of Australian national security since Vietnam. John Howard expressed his bafflement at Rudd’s decision, maintaining that there was still much for Australian forces to do in Iraq.
In 2003, when the United States first announced their plans to invade Iraq, the Howard government said that Australian troops were obligated to participate as part of the ANZUS Treaty. The 1951 treaty is an agreement between Australia, New Zealand and the US to come to the aid of the other when attacked.
The Australian Government supported the Bush administration’s claim that establishing a democratic government in Iraq would spread pro-Western democracies in the Middle East and prevent future terrorist attacks by eliminating Islamic radicalism. Six years into the war, this vision is looking largely idealistic.
By March 2003, there were 2000 Australian troops committed to action in Iraq. Howard gave the go-ahead for Australian armed forces to engage Iraqi forces on 18 March 2003. Australian Special Air Service (SAS) forces were in battle on the ground a day before the US began bombing Baghdad in one of the first battles of the war.
The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) confirmed in its 2002-2003 annual report that Australia was considered a potential target by al-Qaeda. In 2008, a speech by an ASIO representative in Canberra identified that al-Qaeda terrorism was still a very real threat, but that Australian security organisations had been able to successfully prevent any attacks in Australia so far.
I fought the law: the domestic debate
While John Howard was busy committing Australian troops to the war in Iraq, the Opposition (then Labor) claimed there was no real proof that Iraq had or could produce Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD). They argued that thousands of innocent Iraqi civilians could be killed if the war went ahead.
In February 2003, anti-war protests occurred all over Australia, including one in Byron Bay, NSW, where 700 women used their naked bodies to form the message “No War”. A protest in Melbourne drew 150,000 people. In March 2003, two protesters were arrested for painting “No War” on the roof of the Sydney Opera House.
Those in favour of leaving Iraq said that because Saddam Hussein was no longer a threat and since no evidence of an Iraqi WMD program had been found, Australia had no business continuing to be there.
Official war operations ended in May 2003, and Australia scaled down their military commitment to 1000 troops. When Howard lost the election in 2007, there were 550 Australian combat soldiers left in Iraq. These were the soldiers that were brought home under Rudd’s election promise.
Two Australians have been killed in action, in 2005 and 2006; both after the war had officially ended.
Clampdown: Saddam in power
Saddam Hussein came to power in Iraq in 1979. He was a member of the nationalist-socialist Ba’ath party, and had assisted in the coup that brought them to power in 1968. Throughout Hussein’s rule there were reports of routine human rights abuses, including the use of chemical weapons on the Kurds in northern Iraq, the torture of political dissidents, and the disappearance of citizens.
In 1990, Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait, a small but oil-rich nation, over a conflict about who owned the oil reserves near the Iraq-Kuwait border. The United Nations (UN) tried to neutralise the conflict, however when Iraq invaded, the United States led a UN force to protect Kuwait’s sovereignty. Australia, as a member of the UN, sent in 1800 personnel to assist in this conflict known as Operation Desert Storm.
The UN placed Iraq under economic sanctions (prohibiting trade with Iraq), in 1990 to prevent further military action against Kuwait. In 1995 the UN established the Oil for Food Program, which allowed Iraq to sell its oil for food and medicine. Due to corruption in the program, the Iraqi people suffered even more intensely after it began.
The UN also passed resolutions forbidding Iraq to develop or possess Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD). UN Weapons Inspectors were sent in; however, Saddam Hussein was uncooperative. This included an incident in October 1998 when Iraq ceased cooperation and the UN pulled all weapons inspectors, headed by Australian Richard Butler at the time, out of the country. The US and the UK bombed Baghdad for four days in December that year to get the inspectors reinstated. They were not successful: Iraq never allowed UN weapons inspectors back into the country.
Straight to hell: the lead up to war in Iraq
Following the terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001, the US led an international force in Afghanistan to remove the Taliban from power and search for al-Qaeda leader, Osama Bin Laden.
The search for Bin Laden failed. U.S President George W. Bush and his administration claimed Iraq had direct links with the Taliban and al-Qaeda. They claimed that Hussein had the ability to produce WMD and was an immediate threat to the national security of any western nation.
The U.S sought support from other western nations including Australia to invade Iraq and rid it of WMD. They first tried to get a UN resolution passed to allow military action in Iraq, but that failed.
Hate and war: civil war in Iraq
After Hussein’s fall, an interim government was set up by the coalition forces. However, a power struggle erupted between the three major religious and cultural factions in Iraq: the Shia, the Sunnis and the Kurds.
The Shia and Sunnis are two sects of Islam: both follow the teachings of the Koran, but believe that different people inherited the right to interpret the Koran after the death of Prophet Muhammad. The Shia (also known as Shiite) majority were persecuted under Hussein, who was a member of the Sunni minority. The Kurds in Iraq are an ethnic and linguistic minority in the north.
The government in Iraq is now struggling to control the insurgency. Insurgents have targeted foreign soldiers as well as Iraqi civilians and infrastructure.
Train in vain: should there still be a western presence in Iraq?
Iraq has become a massive humanitarian crisis, with anywhere between 87,000 and 95,000 civilian deaths since March 2003. The death toll for American soldiers is around 4000. There are around 2.8 million Iraqis who are ‘internally displaced’ and are struggling to find access to shelter, food, water and basic services.
Humanitarian assistance is desperately needed – but Iraq remains one of the most dangerous places in the world, even if you are just there to help. There is much criticism of the lack of a realistic plan to re-build post-Saddam Iraq and a viable exit strategy.
Even though the UK and Australia have withdrawn troops, the U.S sees their role as ongoing over the next few years at least. Nevertheless, even President Bush has decided to reduce the number of American troops in Iraq. He has promised to bring 8000 soldiers home by February 2009.
Those who believe in staying the course in Iraq say that the country is too unstable, that the bloodshed will increase, and the Sunni-Shia civil war in Iraq could escalate into a regional conflict. It would also give al-Qaeda a symbolic victory. There is fear that without troops in Iraq, the country could become a breeding ground for terrorists.
Author’s Note: The section titles are indebted to the Clash.
This page was updated by kate elise
How do I know this?
Australian Intelligence Annual Report 2002-2003 http://www.asio.gov.au/Publications/Content/
Chehab, Zaki. “Sunni v. Shia” http://www.newstatesman.com/200702120009
Iraq Body Count http://www.iraqbodycount.org/
‘Iraq displacement & return 2008 mid-year review’, International Organization for Migration, http://www.globalpolicy.org/security/issues/iraq/attack/
Iraq: Systematic torture of political prisoners, Amnesty International, 15 August 2001 http://web.amnesty.org/library/Index/engMDE140082001
Richmond, Sheldon “Iraqi Sanctions: Were They Worth It?” January 2004. http://ww.globalpolicy.org/security/sanction/iraq1/
Robinson, Eugene, “US Halts Attacks on Iraq after Four Days,” The Washington Post, 20 December 1998. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/inatl/longterm/iraq/stories/end122098.htm
SAS role in Iraq Revealed, The Sydney Morning Herald, 9 May 2003 http://www.smh.com.au/articles/
Sheridan, Greg, ‘Telling blows in the war on terror’, The Australian, 18 September 2008 www.theaustralian.news.com.au
Smith, Tanalee, ‘Australia Ends Iraq Combat Operations’, ABC News, 1 June 2008, www.abcnews.go.com
Silva, Mark “We stand together in 'decisive struggle,'” Cheney says in Australia, Chicago Tribune (IL), Feb 23, 2007.
United Nations Resolution 1205, adopted 5 November 1998. http://www.casi.org.uk/info/undocs/scres/1998/sres1205.htm
The War in Iraq: ADF Operations in the Middle East in 2003 http://www.defence.gov.au/publications/lessons.pdf
War in Iraq 2003, Australian War Memorial http://www.awm.gov.au/iraq/index.asp
Williams, Clive “Australia's continuing presence in Iraq remains unclear,” The Canberra Times 8 March 2007 http://canberra.yourguide.com.au/detail.asp?class=your%20say&subclass=general&story_id=563938&category=Opinion