No such thing as victory in Iraq, says Nelson
IRAQ will remain beset by sectarian violence and terrorism even after coalition forces leave it, Defence Minister Brendan Nelson has warned.
"There is no such thing as victory in Iraq," the minister declared in a speech to a defence conference yesterday.
He made the extraordinary admission just hours before US Vice-President Dick Cheney arrived in Australia last night on an official visit, and the day after Britain announced it was cutting its Iraq troop commitment by a quarter.
In his speech, Dr Nelson said people should not be thinking in terms of "conventional victories or success" in Iraq.
Success would "essentially mean that the democratically-elected Iraqi Government, supported by its own Iraqi security forces, will be able to provide economic and defence security to its own people for the forseeable future," he said.
"It will, however, be a country that will continue to be characterised by degrees of sectarian and other violence and al-Qaeda and other terrorists who so desperately want to make sure they prevail in Iraq will do everything to frustrate and undermine it."
The comments appear to be a departure from the recent rhetoric of the Bush Administration and the Howard Government on coalition objectives in Iraq.
As recently as last month, in his state of the union address, US President George Bush said: "It is still within our power to shape the outcome of this battle. Let us find our resolve, and turn events towards victory."
Prime Minister John Howard said this month the coalition should not "abandon the Iraqi people to much greater bloodshed and deliver a victory to the terrorists".
Federal Opposition Leader Kevin Rudd last night seized on the Defence Minister's remarks, telling The Age the Government was raising the white flag on Iraq, and that Dr Nelson had admitted that there could never be an exit strategy.
"Dr Nelson's extraordinary admission of military defeat in Iraq heralds an entire new chapter in the Iraq debate in Australia and undermines fundamentally the Government's credibility on national security," Mr Rudd said.
"If the Defence Minister is now saying there is absolutely no military hope in Iraq, then why the hell are we there in the first place and how did they get this so radically wrong?
"This is the final and formal hauling up of the white flag by the Howard Government on its entire Iraq strategy. That strategy has cost the Australian taxpayers $2 billion and has made Australia a greater terrorist target than we would otherwise have been."
Dr Nelson, in his speech, continued to maintain that it would be wrong for coalition forces to withdraw from Iraq now. He said anyone familiar with US domestic politics would understand the risk if the US adopted an isolationist foreign policy in response to a premature retreat from Iraq.
"Whatever anybody thinks about the Australia-US alliance … it will be damaged if the US leaves Iraq in a situation where the al-Qaeda and others are able to say they have prevailed," he said.
The Iraq war is expected to be at the top of the agenda during the three-day visit of the US Vice-President. Mr Cheney will hold talks with Mr Rudd today, and with Prime Minister John Howard and his ministers tomorrow.
Mr Rudd said earlier yesterday he would also raise his desire to have Guantanamo Bay detainee Hicks tried quickly in a civilian court, either in the US or Australia.
Speaking in Tokyo on the eve of his visit to Australia, Mr Cheney sparked a fresh political confrontation with Democrats who now control the US Congress, declaring their efforts to thwart President Bush's plan to send more troops to Iraq would "validate the al-Qaeda strategy".
The Bush Administration is under unprecedented pressure over its Iraq strategy, heightened by British Prime Minister Tony Blair's decision this week to withdraw some British forces.
Mr Rudd will reassure Mr Cheney of Labor's continued support for the US alliance, but stress it will not be unconditional. He is expected to say that a Labor government will warn its ally if it feels the US is making bad decisions, and explain Labor's plan to pull Australia's 520 combat troops out of southern Iraq while leaving other units in place to protect diplomats, gather intelligence and protect Iraqi oil platforms in the Persian Gulf. Mr Rudd will assure Mr Cheney that Labor strongly supports the efforts of the coalition in Afghanistan — while making the point that he believes the US left too soon after toppling the Taliban.
Dr Nelson, in his speech yesterday, slammed Mr Rudd for backing Australian involvement in the war against terror in Afghanistan, but not in Iraq. And he queried why opponents of Australia's presence in Iraq were not also advocating Australia withdraw from East Timor and the Solomon Islands.
"They know that if we leave that country (East Timor) prematurely we will see a return to the events that led to Australia going back in there with New Zealand in May last year," he said.
But Mr Rudd said the Government needed to explain why it believed it was OK for Britain and Denmark to withdraw troops from Iraq, but not Australia.
"Why is it not OK for 520 Australian troops to be brought home to Australia some time next year. That's the question which Australians would like the answer to," he said.
Greens leader Bob Brown said the Government should follow British Prime Minister Tony Blair's lead and withdraw Australian forces. "It seems that Mr Howard's got no strategy but to respond to whatever George Bush does," Senator Brown said.
"Our troops should be at home. We need them for deployment in our own region and not at the behest of a Bush administration which is being increasingly seen to be embroiled in a war it can't win."
Meanwhile, anti-war protesters are expected to be out in force in central Sydney today and hundreds of police have been mobilised for the visit of Mr Cheney.
Police and anti-war protesters clashed last night during a rally near Sydney Town Hall as parts of the city went into lockdown.
Last night's protest, organised by the Stop the War Coalition at Town Hall, turned nasty when about 200 people attempted to break a line of police and march to the US Consulate in Martin Place.
Police officers, supported by mounted officers, held their positions as activists attempted to break through.
Ten people were arrested in the scuffle with police, which calmed after officers negotiated with organisers to allow the group to march on the footpath during busy peak hour traffic.
Superintendent Ron Mason said police supported the right to demonstrate as long as there was no disruption to the community.He said an application from the demonstrators was received but it was unreasonable for demonstrators to block busy streets during peak hour. "Police have been negotiating for days with this group and they agreed to hold a static demonstration at Town Hall.
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