Sydney Morning Herald -- Friday June 23, 2006
Furious Iraq demands apology
Shattered ... the vehicle in which the guard was killed. Photo: Reuters
Marian Wilkinson, Paul McGeough and Phillip Coorey
AUSTRALIA'S relations with the Iraqi Government were severely fractured yesterday with the Iraqi Trade Minister threatening to ditch all trade deals after Australian military forces opened fire on his bodyguards, killing one and injuring four others.
The botched security operation happened on Wednesday afternoon, Baghdad time, when an Australian military convoy was conducting a reconnaissance mission of the route between the minister's office and the Australian embassy in Baghdad in preparation for a meeting with an Australian trade delegation.
The Iraqi Trade Minister, Abdul Falah al-Sudany, is demanding an apology and compensation from the Howard Government.
Yesterday the vice-chief of the Defence Force, Lieutenant-General Ken Gillespie, confirmed that members of the Australian security detachment had been involved in the incident and he issued a statement saying the Defence Force "deeply regrets" the incident.
The forces are from Security Detachment 9, the unit to which Private Jake Kovco belonged before he died in a bizarre shooting incident in April.
Members of the security detachment provide protection for Australian officials in Baghdad.
An Australian military officer had warned on Monday that the forces at the Australian headquarters in Baghdad were under intense pressure because of the demands of the inquiry into Private Kovco's death.
Speaking by video link from Baghdad on Monday, counsel assisting the military board of inquiry, Colonel Michael Griffin, said Australian military personnel in Baghdad "have equally, if not more important, duties to attend to" than the inquiry. He also said that there were "heavy demands on the assets and resources" of the Baghdad headquarters.
The commanding officer of the security detachment unit and up to eight of its 110 men were caught up in the inquiry this week. The hearings were adjourned only hours before the incident.
News of the fatal shooting broke just hours before the Prime Minister, John Howard, told Parliament that Australian forces would be staying in Iraq to take on a new, possibly more dangerous mission. While the new focus will be on training Iraqi security forces, Mr Howard said, in some cases the Australian forces would provide back-up for the Iraqis in direct military operations.
However, despite delivering a long statement about Australia's new role in Iraq, neither Mr Howard, the Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, nor the Trade Minister, Mark Vaile, offered a formal apology to the Iraqis.
The shooting by the Australian forces follows a series of damaging killings of civilians by US forces that have rocked the new Iraqi Government and intensified calls for troops to be withdrawn.
According to a senior defence spokesman, Gus Gilmore, a convoy of Australian troops from the security detachment travelling in three light armoured vehicles were checking the route.
The commanding officer of the soldiers who shot at the vehicle was tied up most of Monday in the Kovco inquiry giving evidence by video link from Baghdad along with three other members of the unit, including two of Kovco's room-mates.
The security detachment was conducting precinct security duty in association with a regular visit to Baghdad by Australia's senior trade commissioner to Iraq, who is based in Amman. The senior trade commissioner was not with the unit at the time.
General Gillespie said that the ADF would be formally and fully investigating the incident.
But he said: "It would be wrong to speculate on the circumstances of the incident until that investigation is complete."