During our recent celebrations of the Coalition's ten years in power, I have, as Prime Minister, been publicly reflecting on our Party's many great achievements, as was appropriate to do. But on this occasion, among old friends and senior colleagues, I wish to share some unsettling thoughts about the situation in Iraq.
Three years ago in Sydney, when I spoke to the men and women of the Australian Defence Force, who were gathered on the deck of HMAS Kanimbla, I felt that above all other Australians, they were entitled to know from me why it is that the Government had asked them to go to the Persian Gulf and face the armed forces of a dangerous dictator.
I said then that all the intelligence material collected over recent times, to which Australia had contributed, proved overwhelmingly that Saddam Hussein had maintained his stockpile of chemical and biological weapons and that he was on the brink of nuclear capability. This posed a real and unacceptable threat to the stability and security of our world. I said that unless Iraq was disarmed of its weapons of mass destruction totally and permanently then the Middle East would remain a powder keg, waiting for a match.
On May 19, 2004, after my return from a visit to Baghdad, I told the Institute of Public Affairs in Melbourne that the situation in Iraq was rapidly improving. That the north of the country was relatively peaceful and most of the south was reasonably stable. I pointed out that Iraq was 'no longer ruled by a loathsome and homicidal dictator, and potentially hundreds of thousands of lives have been saved'. I sincerely believed that at the time.
There had been so many encouraging signs of progress. Let me re-iterate some of the signs I mentioned in 2004, and reflect on the situation from today's perspective, as we approach the third anniversary of the occupation.
I said then that six major water treatment plants had been rehabilitated. Perhaps I should have pointed out that these plants had previously been destroyed by British and US bombs during the 12 years of UN sanctions against the Hussein regime. Today, the water situation in Iraq is dire. Billions of dollars have been shifted from rebuilding vital infrastructure to guarding the borders of Iraq.
I said that all 240 hospitals as well as 1,200 health clinics were fully operational, which was the advice we had received from the then administrator, Mr Paul Bremer. Unfortunately, this turned out to be overly optimistic. On November 2004, at the start the coalition¹s pacification of the city of Falluja, the city's General Hospital was occupied by US troops and - I am sorry to say - that hospital staff were handcuffed and some patients were dragged from their beds; perhaps for good reasons. Snipers were posted on the roof of the building and ambulances were strafed. On November, 6, the BBC reported that US air strikes had reduced the newly built Nazzal Emergency Hospital to rubble.
One doctor reportedly told Reuters, and I quote: "There is not a single surgeon in Falluja. We had one ambulance hit by US fire and a doctor wounded. There are scores of injured civilians in their homes whom we can't move. A 13-year-old child just died in my hands." Now I do not wish to labour the point. But it should be conceded that an impartial examination actions of the Coalition of the Willing during operations in Falluja has raised uncomfortable issues for our Government. On the face of it, the Geneva Conventions and core articles of the UN Declaration on Human Rights have been ignored. During the siege of Falluja, many Iraqi women and children were caught in the line of fire and some civilians were shot as they tried to swim across the Tigris. It has even been reported that weapons of dubious legality were used in Falluja, such as cluster bombs, napalm, incendiary white-phosphorus and thermobaric, or "fuel-air" explosives, which can have the effect of a tactical nuclear weapon without residual radiation. http://www.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,3604,1647716,00.html
The International Red Cross estimates that at least 60% of those killed in the assault on the city were women, children and the elderly; a pattern of destruction that has persisted throughout the occupation of Iraq, and, as much as we would like to shut our eyes, this has served to boost the recruitment of insurgents and harden their resolve. In May last year, the city of al-Qaim near the Syrian border was the target of a major offensive known as Operation Matador, which resulted in hundreds of Iraqi casualties. This operation also displaced thousand of civilians, destroyed entire neighborhoods, polluted water supplies and put one hospital out of action. Six months later in al-Qaim, Operation Steel wiped out the General Hospital, other medical centers, some mosques and schools, even the electricity station. http://www.warcrimeswatch.org/news_details.cfm?artid=155&cat=7
These are the facts. There are many more examples. And they raise serious concerns for the future predicament which our Government and our party may find ourselves facing. We have been lucky up to this point, because the full extent of the mayhem resulting from our U.N sanctioned occupation has not been dwelt upon by the Australian media. You can draw your own conclusions why this is so. However, having been kept well briefed on the conflict by our intelligence agencies, I can assure you that many unpleasant details are still to emerge.
Also, on a personal note, it would be inaccurate for me to maintain that the events unfolding during course of the occupation have left me unmoved. It has long been my habit to keep acquainted with opinions opposed to my own, and to canvas a wide range of views. If an edited version of this talk is made available, it may reference sources from the internet.
Under international law, all military forces owe a 'duty of care' to the civilians of an occupied city. And I am starting to ask myself if this is a commitment we have betrayed. In fact, I dare to wonder if we have betrayed the very ideals that I invoked in my support of the invasion.
In my 2004 speech to the Institute of Public Affairs in Melbourne, I said that, 'Iraq now has a growing and robust independent media, which is absolutely essential for the development and maintenance of a healthy democracy'. Well, I am afraid that was a little premature. Our US partners thought it necessary to suppress the more irresponsible organs of opinion. Several editors were arrested. And while I accepted assurances from our allies that the bombing of the Baghdad offices of Al Jazeera in 2003 was an accident, I must say, that in light of the recent unearthing of the Downing Street memo, the contents of which are available to my Government, I now hold grave doubts about the official story. All told, since the start of hostilities in Iraq, it appears that 82 media personnel have lost their lives. http://www.rsf.org/special_iraq_en.php3