Time to study Australia’s role in the tragedy of Iraq

From Crikey today:

Our arrival into the military airport in Baghdad was like something from the ‘Charlie Don’t Surf’ scene in the movie Apocalypse Now — US air force jets taking off and landing, Iraqi forces with a heavy presence, US helicopters flying low and loudly across the skies, and the four Australian light-armoured vehicles waiting in the distance.

That’s the Australian — “the only media outlet invited” — reporting on Julia Gillard in Iraq, visiting the 90 Australian soldiers still there.

Apocalypse now or apocalypse slightly later? Tomorrow, US combat troops will leave Iraqi towns and cities, under the Status of Forces Agreement negotiating the US withdrawal. Already there’s been an uptick in violence suggestive of how very fragile the relative calm of the last months remains: a truck bomb in Kirkuk last weekend killing almost 70, a bomb attack in a Baghdad motorbike market killing 15 and wounding 50, a bombing in Sadr city killing 76.

In his book Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006-2008, Thomas Ricks argues that while the surge succeeded militarily, it failed politically, since it never achieved reconciliation between the warring factions. Indeed, by vastly increasing the numbers of Iraqis on the US payroll, it may well have set the scene for fresh violence. His prediction for Iraq’s future?

It’s not going to be a democracy, it’s going to have a surprising level of violence, it’s probably going to be an ally of Iran and it’s probably going to be ruled by some sort of dictator, some sort of little Saddam.

Clearly, the story of the Iraq war still has a long way to run.

And that is why Australia needs the kind of inquiry due to take place in Britain.

It is, when you think about it, a very strange contrast. In the UK, where the party that went to war still holds power, the government’s been forced not to hold an inquiry but to conduct most of it in public, at which current PM Gordon Brown and former PM Tony Blair will give evidence. Here, with the Man of Steel long gone, it’s Fawlty Towers, with no-one mentioning the war.

Already, the prospect of an inquiry in Britain has spurred new revelations. Yesterday, the Mirror reported on a secret military dossier that blames Tony Blair for “uncritically” accepting flawed American plans and says that Gordon Brown didn’t adequately provide for troops, leaving British soldiers communicating by mobile phones because their army radios didn’t work. Before that, the Observer uncovered new evidence that, that when, two months before the invasion, Blair and Bush realised that UN inspectors would not find WMDs, they discussed ways that they might provoke conflict — including flying “U2 reconnaissance aircraft painted in UN colours over Iraq with fighter cover” so that the resulting Iraqi fire that could be presented as a breach of UN resolutions.

Well, were John Howard or Alexander Downer involved in these sinister tete-a-tetes about how best to prevent a peaceful resolution of the conflict? What did they know and when? Don’t Australians have as much right to the truth as anyone in Britain?

True, there’s already been the 2004 Flood inquiry into how Australia’s spy agencies handled Iraq. But that precedent only makes the case for a more general inquiry more compelling rather than less. If it’s fit and proper to investigate how those working for the ONA and Defence Intelligence Organisation performed, isn’t it equally so when it comes to the real decision makers? Going to war is the most serious step a government can take. Shouldn’t we subject what happened back then to the same kind of scrutiny we reserve for ute dealerships?

At the very least, a broad-ranging inquiry might focus attention on some basic questions of process. Greens Senator Scott Ludlam has been trying, without much success, to win support for a Private Senator’s Bill that would force a government to get parliamentary approval before taking the nation to war. If there’s a reason why a declaration of war shouldn’t be put before the parliament, well, it would interesting to hear it.

Julia Gillard could fly out of Baghdad again, accompanied by all those exciting helicopters. The Australian troops will eventually leave, too. But there’s no where for the Iraqi people to go. For their sake, at least, what happened in 2003 still matters.

Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley Award-winning writer, broadcaster and former editor of Overland.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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