as Australia's trigger happy troops kill Trade Minister's guard
See report: Furious Iraq demands apology
Sydney Morning Herald -- Friday June 23, 2006
Headlong on the road to nowhere
Australia has lost only one soldier in Iraq, but it has suffered plenty of collateral damage, writes Paul McGeough.
THE Australian chapter of the Iraq war has to be from a script - but who wrote it? Gilbert and Sullivan … perhaps in collaboration with Joseph Heller or maybe the team from M*A*S*H?
This is the war that the Howard Government insisted we had to have, but in which it never really wanted to take part. More than three years into the conflict, George Bush has demonstrated an unambiguous determination to fight; and amid much bungling, he has paid dearly - in blood, treasure and credibility.
Australia, on the other hand, has spent its time in Iraq ducking and weaving well away from the front line, at the same time as MPs at home huff and puff and make po-faced speeches about "wartime leadership" and "being at war".
To get a seat for the Iraq show, a few Australians had to be on the front line for the US-led invasion in March 2003. But within days of the fall of Baghdad, the Government worked out where its troops would face the least danger. And that's where you find the Australians … protecting their own, or staying right out of harm's way.
The upshot is that Australia's Iraq war has been light on for combat, the business of war, at the same time as it is replete either with bungles such as Wednesday night's shooting of an Iraqi Trade Ministry security guard or posturing like the recent Howard visit to Washington.
This week, the spin from the Defence Minister, Brendan Nelson, is that the Australian troops might be home by Christmas. Put to one side the fact that it cuts through all the Bush-Howard rhetoric about staying until the job is done; Nelson has opened the door to an early look at how history might be shaped.
Failing any more stuff-ups, if Gilbert and Sullivan were brought in as the official historians, they would have great difficulty resisting the unfortunate death of Private Jake Kovco as an opening metaphor.
On the evidence so far, the young father of two died as he and his mates were doing a bit of what Australian politicians seem to have been doing throughout the Iraq war play-acting. It was a bullet fired from his pistol that killed Kovco in the relative comfort of his living quarters, within the relative safety of the Baghdad green zone.
Kovco is the Australian military's only Iraq fatality, but it was an accidental death that might have happened in any barracks. It cannot be seriously included among the "Iraq war dead".
Despite all that, the Australian military could not bring him home with dignity or efficiency. The Americans have shipped more than 2500 bodies home - and have not lost a one. But with only one for the entire war, the Australians mislaid Kovco's remains when they chose the cut-rate services of a Kuwaiti undertaker to repatriate him. And when they tried to establish what went wrong, the investigating officer left a disk version of her report in an airport lounge which was leaked to Derryn Hinch.
But before Kovco, there was WMD and AWB. Canberra fell for all the Washington make-believe on Saddam Hussein's non-existent weapons of mass destruction like a kid being fooled by magicians.
But despite its determination to bring down an evildoer, the Government claims it could see nothing when all the evidence of AWB's evildoer deals with Saddam - kickbacks worth $300 million in what has been dubbed the wheat-for-weapons scam - flooded just about every desk in Canberra.
And if the Australian military has been staying out of trouble in Iraq, the same cannot be said of the civilian engineer Douglas Wood, kidnapped by insurgents last year. Again, Australia showed its deft understanding of the Arab world, dispatching a rescue team that showed all the signs of being out of its depth.
A Sunni tribal leader, Sheik Hassan Zadaan, publicly claimed to have contacts through which he might be able to negotiate Wood's release - and he made sure his phone number and his willingness to meet the rescue team were passed to the Australian embassy.
The Australians did drop in on the sheik - dozens of them, slithering down ropes from hovering choppers in the dead of night, exploding noise grenades, trashing his home and taking him and a bunch of his household guards as prisoners. Zadaan was accused of being the kidnapper.
He was held without charge and released a few days later, but it was another five long weeks before Wood was accidentally sprung from captivity by Iraqi forces on other business.
So there was no surprise yesterday when the Prime Minister briefed Parliament on the relocation of the bulk of the Australian contingent within Iraq - a move brought on by Japan's decision to withdraw its men who were being protected by the Australians.
He laid it on about the bravery of Australians in uniform. But that is never in doubt - what is in doubt is the will of his Government to put security and other resources where they are most desperately needed in a struggling country.
Till now, apart from 100-odd men camped in Baghdad's green zone who guard Australian diplomats, the Australians have been at Camp Smitty in the far south-west of Iraq, so far from the Baghdad shooting gallery it might as well be in neighbouring Saudi Arabia.
Their new camp will be 80 kilometres down the road at Tallil, a coalition air base. Again, the Italians, who were stationed at nearby Nasiriyah after the invasion, faced strife that included a lethal car bomb. But even John Howard could not ramp the risk: "The intelligence assessments available to the Government indicate that the areas in which the ADF will be operating … have among the lowest threat levels in comparison to the rest of Iraq."
It all makes you wonder how these things are negotiated. For all their mistakes, the Americans and the British do do the heavy lifting in the war. Australia doesn't. And despite the extraordinary language of Bush's praise for Howard, the US President's diplomatic staff must work hard to keep the smirk from their faces when the Australians call.
The Australians have a deserved combat reputation and the Americans prefer to work more closely with them than with the British. All of which means that if you cut through the diplomatic face-saving, the Australians must front up, saying: "We'll give you all the help we can … but we don't want any of the complication and risk of being in a war zone."
It's a pity the Iraqis who were killed or injured as an Australian convoy roared away from Baghdad's Trade Ministry on Wednesday could not make such a request. And it might be a pity, too, for Australian farmers. Since the invasion, Howard's US allies have taken the lion's share of the hugely lucrative Iraq wheat trade.
Given that this week's shooting bungle unfolded on the steps of Baghdad's Trade Ministry and the angry outpourings of the Trade Minister, Abdul Falah Al-Sudany, there could well be some truth in the warning by a Sydney wag yesterday afternoon: "There goes the wheat trade!"
Oh, what a lovely warThe shoot-out in which Australian forces killed a security guard in Baghdad on Wednesday is the latest incident in which John Howard seems to be out of its depth.
The Government fell for George Bush's fabricated case for war.
We await the report of the Cole inquiry into AWB kickbacks, worth about $300 million, to Saddam Hussein before the invasion. Ministers, officials and diplomats have had to explain how they missed endless warnings of AWB's sanction-busting.
Apart from providing security for Australian officials in Baghdad, the military's key tasks have been in exceptionally secure or very remote areas, and guarding Japanese units in remote Al-Muthanna province.
A rescue team sent by the Government wrongly concluded that a tribal sheik who volunteered to help negotiate Douglas Wood's release was the hostage-taker. Landing from helicopters, they attacked his home and arrested him.
His death was an accidental shooting, not in combat. The only Australian serviceman to die in Iraq, the ADF still lost his body. A draft report on what went wrong in the repatriation of his body was left in a Melbourne airport lounge - where someone found it and passed it to broadcaster Derryn Hinch.