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Now is the time for an Australian inquiry into the Iraq War

By Chris Doran - posted Friday, 28 January 2011


The 2003 invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq have been an unparalleled disaster for the Iraqi people, with estimates as high as a million plus who have died directly as a result, over 4 million people who have been displaced out of a population of 23 million, and a country ripped apart by sectarian violence. All a product of an invasion and occupation that Australia was proudly a part of. So proud, in fact, that it was willing to commit military forces to the invasion, one of only four nations to do so along with the US, UK, and Poland.

That war crimes were committed by the coalition in Iraq is beyond dispute. The 'Shock and Awe' of the invasion itself, the torture scandal of Abu Ghraib, the war profiteering and corruption of the occupation, and the indiscriminate killing of civilians and excessive use of force by coalition forces are just some of the many incidents of war crimes that have received intense international media attention. Further revelations of coalition support for or direct participation in torture and indiscriminate killings were revealed in the massive cache of classified military documents released by Wikileaks in 2010.

Nor are the consequences limited to Iraq. Australia, as well as the rest of the world, is significantly less safe. Our civil liberties have been severely impinged by wave after wave of anti terrorism legislation supposedly designed to protect us.

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The Howard Government's decision to not only support but to participate in the invasion was not, as we all vividly remember, without significant opposition. Howard was warned repeatedly that a military invasion of Iraq was illegal and would contravene the United Nation's charter. Countless experts refuted alleged intelligence that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) and ties to Al Queda; many warned that invading Iraq would only inflame anti-western radical Islamic sentiment. And Australians took to the streets in mass protests not seen since the previous national debacle of following the US blindly into a brutal and unjust war in Vietnam. We now know of course that there were no WMD's or ties to Al Queda; even more importantly, we know that Howard, Bush, and Blair knew at the time that there was no evidence. Put simply, they lied.

The British Chilcot Inquiry has largely focused on the legality of the invasion, and what then British Prime Minister Tony Blair knew, and when he knew it. This is somewhat of a moot point; the leaked Downing Street memo of July 2002 established that Blair knew then that the US had already decided to invade, and that the UN Security Council debate and attempt to secure a new resolution justifying force was all theatre. But it is not nor should it be a moot point for Australia.

As revealed in the 2006 Cole Inquiry into the Australian Wheat Board (AWB) kickback scandal, in early 2002 John Dauth, then Australia's ambassador to the United Nations, told AWB Chairman Trevor Flugge that US military action to invade Iraq and overthrow Saddam Hussein was inevitable, and that Australia would support and participate in such action. Flugge then dutifully reported this to the AWB Board of Directors on February 27, 2002. And so AWB was given advance notice of the Howard Government’s intention to participate militarily a full year before the invasion took place and well before any sort of informed debate had begun. Issues of legality, justice, the rule of law, and innocent civilian lives clearly never entered into the decision making process, but Australia's wheat exports to Iraq did. That revelation alone should have prompted an Inquiry years ago.

An excellent starting question for John Howard testifying at an independent Inquiry would be why and how his Government had already decided a year in advance to participate in an invasion. The follow up question would be why he felt it appropriate for this decision to be divulged to Trevor Flugge and AWB. We all remember Trevor Flugge, right- famous for the grinning, bare-chested, pistol-toting photograph taken of him while he was serving as co-Head of the post-invasion Iraqi Ministry of Agriculture. The photo appeared on the front pages of newspapers throughout Australia in 2006, when Flugge was revealed to be a primary architect of the nearly $300 million in kickbacks that AWB paid to Saddam Hussein to guarantee Australian wheat contracts under the UN Oil for Food program.

One would think that running the post-war Ministry of Agriculture would be about ensuring that Iraq could return to some semblance of food security after years of war and devastating sanctions. But that wasn't it at all. According to Howard, he appointed Flugge 'because our principal concern at that time was to stop American wheat growers from getting our markets. We thought Mr Flugge would fight hard for the Australian wheat industry.' Flugge did work hard- he worked hard to eliminate subsidies, tariffs, and any other agricultural protections that could have helped Iraq provide its own food security. Instead, Iraqi agriculture was decimated and became dependent on foreign imports- like Australian wheat.

Considering the closeness of the Howard-Bush friendship, it is not too far-fetched that the decision to invade could have been as simple as a ten minute conversation between the two. It might have gone something like this: Bush said the US was going to depose Saddam, Howard replied you know we are with you but this would be much easier for me politically if we could be guaranteed our wheat exports and some other concessions, Bush said okay I'll take care of it. And that, sickening as it is to consider, was very possibly that.

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I've written previously about how Australia's ongoing wheat exports to Iraq under the UN Oil for Food sanctions program would have almost certainly ended had Australia not participated in the invasion. AWB and other Australian corporations were rewarded handsome contracts under the Occupation, contracts handed out as spoils of war under a military Occupation with virtually no Iraqi participation. In addition to AWB, the usual suspects were involved, including BHP, which secured access to the massive Halfayeh oilfield.

But as horrible as all these things are, the worst thing Australia did was willingly and enthusiastically participate in the wholesale reaming of the Iraqi people by forcing a radical free trade neoliberal system of economic governance on the country. It participated in the Coalition Provisional Authority's (CPA) attempt to sell off Iraqi government assets- and since Iraq's economy was largely socialist, that meant pretty much every industry imaginable- to western investors. When that failed, it eliminated tariffs and duties on imports, thus facilitating the flooding of the economy with cheap foreign products and sabotaging any chance of Iraqi economic sovereignty and severely impeding the Iraqi people's right to self determination. In addition, the CPA established a constitutional framework that entrenched these laws for future Iraqi governments, and tethered the Iraqi economy and its oil production to the US dominated IMF, World Bank, and WTO. Iraqis had no say in determining these policies, but plenty of Australians did. At least 15 Australian officials were in senior Coalition Provisional Authority positions.

Australia’s actions regarding the CPA economic orders were clearly illegal as defined by international law. The Hague Regulations of 1907, Article 43 states that an occupying power “must re-establish and insure as far as possible, public order and safety, while respecting, unless absolutely prevented, the laws in force in the country."

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About the Author

Christopher Doran is a Postdoctoral Research Associate in Political Economy at Macquarie University.

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All articles by Chris Doran

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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