A newly declassified report obtained by Fairfax Media reveals Australia’s role in the 2003 invasion of Iraq was undertaken solely to enhance our alliance with the US. David Wroe investigates.
On the night of April 12, 2003, Australia’s military commander in the Middle East, Brigadier Maurie McNarn, was woken by a phone call telling him that a RAAF Hercules would soon fly into Baghdad airport to deliver medical supplies for the Iraqi capital’s looted hospitals.
The caller was his boss, then Chief of the Defence Force General Peter Cosgrove. Nevertheless, McNarn protested, saying the airport was not secure and there was no safe way to distribute the supplies to 40 hospitals across the crumbling capital. Cosgrove, now Sir Peter, the nation’s Governor-General, told him to make it happen. It was being announced to the press in 30 minutes.
Operation Baghdad Assist went ahead and became a media triumph for then prime minister John Howard and Sir Peter amid a deeply unpopular war. The Hercules, carrying three journalists and 13 commandos to provide protection, was the first Australian plane to land in Baghdad after the invasion a month earlier.
But the medical supplies never made it out of the airport. They rotted. A second planeload was diverted to the city of Nasiriyah, whose hospitals were already relatively well stocked. McNarn would go on to dismiss the whole thing as a “photo opportunity”. Special forces commander Lieutenant-Colonel Rick Burr, who learned of the operation on CNN, was equally upset, writing in his diary that the operation made “a mockery of our approach”.
It’s one of many startling revelations in a 572-page, declassified internal report on the Iraq War obtained by Fairfax Media under freedom of information laws. Written between 2008 and 2011 by Dr Albert Palazzo from Defence’s Directorate of Army Research and Analysis, it is by far the most comprehensive assessment of our involvement in the war. Originally classified “Secret”, it was finally released last week after more than 500 redactions.
The report concludes that Howard joined US president George W. Bush in invading Iraq solely to strengthen Australia’s alliance with the US. Howard’s – and later Kevin Rudd’s – claims of enforcing UN resolutions, stopping the spread of weapons of mass destruction and global terrorism, even rebuilding Iraq after the invasion, are dismissed as “mandatory rhetoric”.
Howard and Sir Peter, facing domestic political pressure, ensured that Australian lives were exposed to as little risk as possible. The result was a contribution that was of only modest military use and, in many cases, made little sense. Politically, delivering the right force was “secondary to the vital requirement of it just being there” but it led some American military officers to grumble that Australia was providing “a series of headquarters”.
It was managed from the top with a keen eye for the politics and the public relations, yet frustrated commanders often asked what they were doing in Iraq and many took to writing their own mission statements. One commander wryly summed up his time in Iraq thus: “We did some shit for a while and things didn’t get any worse.”
The report, which Defence says is an “unofficial history” that represents the author’s own views, is the product of three years’ work and includes more than 75 interviews with military figures, correspondence with other sources, and full access to classified documents.
Palazzo planned it as an unclassified book to be published by the Army History Unit, aimed at teaching junior officers about the Iraq War, but it grew into a larger, classified project that Palazzo hoped would be distributed internally, including to senior Defence leaders.
That did not happen. Instead the report was shelved.
Its release comes as Australia once again ponders the US alliance in the era of Donald Trump, with Australian troops back in Iraq, and with the Pentagon poised to release a new game plan to defeat the Islamic State terror group that could involve asking for more help from Canberra.