1. Iran-Iraq War: Diplomats on the ground
2. Protest statement by former senior Australian officials on the 2003 invasion of Iraq
Iraq under Saddam Hussein
Martyrs Memorial - grand monument in Baghdad
Embassy staff donning suits to protect against chemical weapons
Iranian SCUD missile strike close to the Australian Embassy
aftermath of a missile hit, taken from Embassy roof
Iran-Iraq War: Diplomats on the ground
Southerly Vol 75 No 3, 2016
Just after midnight we flew into one of the hottest cities in the world
at the hottest time of the year, not because it was pleasanter then but
because a war was on and international flights in and out of Baghdad
were limited to a narrow night-time band. The city below us had been
bejewelled on a black velvet background as we came into land and we
were soon inside the bright and glittering Saddam Hussein airport. We
saw nothing war-related there, and hardly anything next day as we
drove around the capital which was mainly remarkable for its absolute
flatness and the great heat.
The war with Iran was just entering its seventh year and everyone
was quite tired of it, foreign governments included. Australia had
embassies in both warring capitals and our main interests in their
countries was trade: my instructions had been to focus on that,
although reporting on the war would also be of interest to some in
Canberra. My other priority was to make sure all nine members of the
Australian staff and their families were safe to the extent possible.
The main danger was from Iranian SCUD missiles. By this stage of
the war Iraq had achieved mastery of the skies and could bomb Tehran
at will. Iran on the other hand had a unique capability, because the
Iraqi capital was within range, to reach Baghdad with its missiles. It
was becoming routine that every few weeks Iraq would drop bombs
and Iran would retaliate with a single SCUD: terror was a main
objective in both cases since no real damage was done by either type of
raid. In our house—which twenty years later would become the
embassy, with Australian soldiers billeted next door—we discovered
hard hats for our protection, the
solid plastic ones used on construction sites.
There were also instructions where to position ourselves in
the event of any attack: in the stout-walled central area with its WC.
Iran’s first dozen SCUDs had come in the previous year at the rate of
one a month but 1986 had so far been almost missile-free. That
changed a fortnight after our arrival when we were woken by a dull
thud like a car door slamming in the street, meaning the ground zero
of that one was some distance away. Next day diplomatic colleagues
reacted casually. They noted that none of their premises had so far been
hit; that the SCUDs had poor accuracy and as often as not landed in
the river or in orchards; and anyway these events actually made the
posting more interesting.
We had expected war but were taken aback by the pervasiveness of the
police state. On the one hand every bit of information was classified
down to yesterday’s weather data and a ban on all maps. On the other it
was plain for Iraqis and foreigners to see that there was a single absolute
imperative: Toe the Line. It was ruthlessly enforced, sometimes by fit
young men in civvies who lurked in building complexes and would step
forward at any suspect activity, such as your car slowing down. Saddam’s
portrait was posted everywhere: should a lunatic urge to deface a
billboard grip you, for sure one of these lads would shoot you, no
questions asked. Everyone had their anecdotes, and fear hung in the air.
The Swiss businessman opposite us opened his front door at a
commotion to find two men gripping a just-murdered third, probably
an army deserter, and carting him off. Our early taste was the sort-of
human noise instead of a dial tone whenever we picked up the telephone.
Saddam had lost interest in receiving ambassadors so I presented
credentials to Izzat Ibrahim ad-Douri, the only one of the inner circle
who was never captured after the US-led invasion in 2003. He was
redheaded, and with his moustache was vaguely reminiscent of Field
Marshal Montgomery. Other members of the Revolutionary Com -
mand Council were called on, all of them uniformed, most of them
amiably ready to set out the party line. This was all that was available.
One simply could not go looking for alternative versions outside the
gossipy diplomatic circuit: to all intents and purposes ordinary Iraqis
were off-limits. The few who were permitted or dared to converse with
foreign diplomats knew that at any time they might be summoned to
explain things to the mukhabarat.
While embassies had to obtain written permission to drive out of
Baghdad, this constraint was not burdensome. Usually within a week
leave would be granted to travel, for example south to Kuwait on
shopping trips for the myriad things unavailable in Iraq, like apples
and air-conditioner parts. Your permit would be studied at the road -
blocks and you were waved on, down the main road ever closer to the
front. You might fill up with petrol halfway and find at the next bowser
a taxi with a plain flag-draped coffin tied to its roof, pass through arid
lunar landscapes scarred for ever by the tracks of military vehicles, and
see car parks full of vehicles belonging to soldiers who had come down
for a tour of duty. At the two-thirds point the road ran parallel to a
dirt levee fifteen metres high with broad ramps up its side and tanks
silhouetted every 150 metres or so. At a turn-off further along, near
where the Tigris and Euphrates meet, a rusty sign showed the way to
“Adams Tree” for this was reputedly the site of the Garden of Eden.
The second SCUD came a month after the first and the Foreign
Ministry took the diplomatic corps out to view the impact site near
the Sheraton Hotel, five kilometres from where we lived. There was a
deepish hole in the ground the size of two tennis courts and we were
told there had been 21 dead and 80 injured. A team came from London
to make our embassy houses safe, fitting them with shatterproof film
on the windows, and curtains with weighted bottoms that would
balloon out in a bomb blast and contain broken glass. The missiles
came in regularly after that, as did the Foreign Ministry tours, once to
a primary school with its sad pile of little shoes and a classroom with
glass shards in a childish picture of Saddam. The nearest bang to us
was at a dull diplomatic dinner immediately enlivened: the house filled
with choking dust and guests went up on the roof to see where the
small mushroom cloud was rising, a kilometre or two away. “Another
missile slams into central Baghdad” was the standard Reuters report.
Sometimes a nervous message would come from Canberra to ask if we
were all right, and we said we were.
Almost no Australian visitors came to Baghdad
at this time. Because Iraq was a key buyer of our wheat the AWB would
occasionally send someone and the Trade minister dropped in for
twenty-four hours. No other politician or senior official came. Foreign
Minister Hayden programmed a visit but it was cancelled when war
activity was seen to intensify. A visit by a team to assess our security
situation was also indefinitely postponed. The fact that this was a hardship
post was recognised in the provisions: Australian staff could take leave outside
the country every four point two months.
The Iraq government, also content to let us get on with it, granted
permission for an excursion. With others from the embassy, a pair of
New Zealanders and five children we headed north into Kurdistan.
After leaving the Mesopotamian plain we entered hilly country, getting
ever closer to the Iranian border. Waiting at a roadblock for a military
escort, an officer confided the real reason for our need for extra
security: with a kink of his head towards the hills behind him he
murmured “Ali Baba!” The threat was local. The villages we then
passed through swarmed with Kurds as curious to see us as we were
them. At the outskirts of Suleimaniya we had extra protection: a ute
full of soldiers bounced along the rough road directly in front of the
car I was driving, with one gun barrel aiming vaguely in our direction.
We visited Dokkan that had been under Iranian attack ten days earlier,
along a road dotted with frequent redoubts full of armed men, some
of whom were in baggy pants. Quite often a single armed Kurd would
appear on a near skyline and we guessed he was on Baghdad’s side, at
least in daylight hours; apparently at night all bets were off. Our three
day trip took us back via Erbil and Kirkuk.
Other outings were approved. One was to the southern marshes, a
vast wetlands between the great rivers, and our first destination was Ur.
Its zigurrat was on a knoll behind which lay an Iraqi air base; the soldiery
on guard made us wait for an age before letting us through, and our
limited Arabic nearly led to disaster as we tried to chat about recent
weather, rare rain, using gestures and words that they took to mean
bombing. Next day we entered the
waterworld notorious for its resistance
to authority. Our boatman took us to his personal island with its
buffalo and its heap of dry dung for the brazier; in his reed house,
swarmed about with children and a cot as the sole item of furniture, we
were gazed down upon by the obligatory portrait of Saddam and
spotted a Kalashnikov protruding from a mat across the room.
Another outing was to Lalish in the Yezidi heartland, a green valley
dotted with shrines with strange fluted spires, the most venerated of
them being that of Sheikh Adi. We
were led into a stone-paved courtyard
with large trees not yet in leaf and a square opening with water
running below. The shrine inside was bare-walled except for a single
bright tapestry adorned with a peacock, representing Satan: it seemed
that if the Omnipotent could not do away with him, he was worth
some veneration. Outside, we accepted an offer of tea, and a glass of
yoghurt. Yezidi men, many armed and all smoking, took up positions
near us and their leader answered our questions. Afterwards we were
shown another shrine wherein were hundreds and hundreds of
photographs of young Yezidis killed in the war with Iran.
The Foreign Ministry took ambassadors and spouses to the holy
city of Kerbala on the occasion of the birthday of Imam Hussein: it
was his death day that provoked the Sunni-Shia split in Islam. After a
dreary three and a half hour parade we toured the great golden-domed
mosque, the female members required to cover themselves with black
gowns. At one moment the tension soared when a flag-draped coffin
was brought in held aloft by young men and there was a fierce chorus
of “There is no god but God!” Two days later we were escorted up to
Mosul for another of those parades. This time the event carried a
different abrupt electricity. A helicopter landed nearby and the crowd
was abuzz: Saddam had come! This was his heartland and the fervour
was palpable. He stayed for an hour, everyone craning to glimpse him
in the grandstand, and then he was gone like Elijah up to heaven in a
swirl of dust.
The war ground on and missiles continued to fall. An Australian
boat, for some outlandish reason fishing in the incredibly dangerous
waters of the Persian Gulf, was hit by an Iraqi missile and the captain
was killed. I must make a vigorous protest at the Foreign Ministry. The
Undersecretary in his Baath Party uniform listened carefully. He
commented that the Straits of Hormuz were something of a no-go
zone these days, adding that with a missile fired from over twenty
kilometres it was likely the pilot had been unable to see the Australian
flag. Canberra judged that response “appalling” and I was to tell the
Iraqis so. The Undersecretary took it on the chin. He noted that
Australia wanted an apology and compensation. Nothing came of it.
Since the Iraqis could not be trusted not to listen in, I was told to
go to Kuwait for a promotion interview by telephone. Basra was on the
way and was becoming a focal point in the war: I sought and was
granted Foreign Ministry approval to visit it. I did not know as I
approached it that Iraq’s second largest city had just been completely
evacuated. At the checkpoint on the periphery the soldiers glanced at
the documentation and waved me through. I put on a tape of classical
music and drove up and down the ghostly streets, past sandbagged
fortifications and war damage, the front line not ten kilometres away,
not a soul in sight. It was weirdly peaceful, there in the eye of the storm.
The Iranian offensive was repelled.
At the end of February 1988 ambassadors were called in to the
Foreign Ministry and told something new: Iraq was warning Iran not
to send any missile as retaliation
for the latest air attack. Our puzzlement
was soon over. Iran sent a SCUD as it always did, and for the first
time Iraq fired a missile back, then another. Iran, greatly surprised,
fired three and Iraq replied with seven. Iran only had two more ready,
but Iraq launched eleven. Journalists soon began calling this the “war
of cities” and one report spoke of missiles “drizzling” on the respective
capitals. Canberra told me to reduce the staff and so I sent four staff
members to safety in Jordan. No other embassy in Baghdad took
similar measures. Morale at the embassy plummeted. Those closest to
the action had a probably unreal feeling of invulnerability. After a few
weeks Canberra agreed to relocation of the evacuated staff to a desert
resort an hour west of Baghdad.
Because Iraq was using chemical weapons including nerve agents a
military team was sent out to
provide us with special suits and instructions
on how to use them. All of us, in an atmosphere of macabre good
humour, donned these things and then went one by one into a room
filled with riot gas. As we entered, a soldier tugged at our collar and for
a few seconds we each got to feel the burning sensation of gas on skin,
to learn the lesson that we must make our outfit as hermetic as
possible. The exercise prompted me to send a report wondering about
the worst case of a chemical attack. When the alarms sounded we
would not at once put on the suits in which our experts said we could
expect to survive in Iraq’s dry heat for “about fifty minutes.” Rather
than dash for safety outside the city and face possible wrath and
obstruction from panicking locals we should perhaps wait for the calm
that came with widespread deaths, including of our hitherto loyal
locally engaged staff—who might bank up outside the heavy glass door
sealing off the secure area of the embassy where the Australia-based
would have taken refuge. The report was not acknowledged.
In late July Iran accepted UN Resolution 598 to end the war. When
it came into effect on 8 August Saddam declared Iraq the winner and
there were wild celebrations in Baghdad, including gunfire into the
night sky, common after victories by the national football team. The
president called a halt to the jubilation which was getting out of hand.
We learned of an old soldier unsteady with the heavy weapon from his
cupboard who accidentally mowed down the family on the next roof.
It had been a strange war, full of surprises beginning with the Iraqi
assault in 1980 and punctuated with unexpected developments like
Iraq’s use of chemical weapons and the role of surface to surface
missiles. Noting this, the authoritative Stockholm International Peace
Research Institute in its annual report at the end of the seventh year of
war said there was only one sure thing, that the war would go on and
on: but then in another surprise it
suddenly ended. The unpredictability
of conflict is a problem both for those operating close to it
such as embassy staff and for policy makers at a distance with
responsibility for them: that will always be an imperfect balance.
8 August 2004
STATEMENT FOR THE MEDIA BY A CONCERNED GROUP OF FORMER SERVICE CHIEFS AND AUSTRALIAN DIPLOMATS
TIME FOR HONEST, CONSIDERED AND BALANCED FOREIGN AND SECURITY POLICIES
We believe a re-elected Howard Government or an
elected Latham government must give priority to truth in government. This is
fundamental to effective parliamentary democracy. Australians must be able to
believe they are being told the truth by our leaders, especially in situations
as grave as committing our forces to war.
We are concerned that Australia was committed to
join the invasion of Iraq on the basis of false assumptions and the deception
of the Australian people.
Saddam Hussein's dictatorial administration has
ended, but removing him was not the reason given to the Australian people for
going to war. The Prime Minister said in March 2003 that our policy was
"the disarmament of Iraq, not the removal of Saddam". He added, a few
days before the invasion, that if Saddam got rid of his weapons of mass
destruction he could remain in power.
It is a matter for regret that the action to combat
terrorism after September 11, 2001, launched in Afghanistan, and widely
supported, was diverted to the widely opposed invasion of Iraq. The outcome has
been destructive, especially for Iraq. The international system has been
subjected to enormous stress that still continues.
It is of concern to us that the international
prestige of the United States and its presidency has fallen precipitously over
the last two years. Because of our Government's unquestioning support for the
Bush Administration's policy, Australia has also been adversely affected.
Terrorist activity, instead of being contained, has increased. Australia has
not become safer by invading and occupying Iraq and now has a higher profile as
a terrorist target.
We do not wish to see Australia's alliance with the
US endangered. We understand that it can never be an alliance of complete equals
because of the disparity in power, but to suggest that an ally is not free to
choose if or when it will go to war is to misread the ANZUS Treaty. Within that
context, Australian governments should seek to ensure that it is a genuine
partnership and not just a rubber stamp for policies decided in Washington.
Australian leaders must produce more carefully balanced policies and present
them in more sophisticated ways. These should apply to our alliance with the
US, our engagement with the neighbouring nations of Asia and the South West
Pacific, and our role in multilateral diplomacy, especially at the United
Above all, it is wrong and dangerous for our
elected representatives to mislead the Australian people. If we cannot trust
the word of our Government, Australia cannot expect it to be trusted by others.
Without that trust, the democratic structure of our society will be undermined
and with it our standing and influence in the world.
The list of those who have agreed to the text follows:
Admiral Alan Beaumont AC . former Chief of Defence Force
General Peter Gration AC . former Chief of Defence Force
Admiral Mike Hudson AC . former Chief of the Navy
Vice Admiral Sir Richard Peek , former Chief of the Navy
Air Marshal Ray Funnell AC, former Chief of the Airforce
Air Vice Marshal Brendan O’Loughlin AO former head of Australian Defence Staff, Washington
Major General Alan Stretton AO, former Director General National Disaster Organisation
Departmental Heads and Diplomatic Representatives
Paul Barratt, AO, former Secretary Dep. Defence and Deputy Secretary DFAT
Dr John Burton, former Secretary of Dep. External Affairs and HC to Ceylon
Dr Stuart Harris AO, former Secretary of Dep. Foreign Affairs and Trade
John Menadue AO, former Secretary of Prime Ministers Department and former Ambassador to Japan
Alan Renouf, former Secretary Dept. Foreign Affairs, Ambassador to France, Ambassador to US
Richard Woolcott, AC, former Secretary of Dept. Foreign Affairs and Trade, Ambassador to the United Nations, Indonesia and The Philippines
Dennis Argall, former Ambassador to China.
Robin Ashwin, former Ambassador to Egypt, Soviet Union and Germany
Jeff Benson, former Ambassador to Denmark and Iceland
Geoff Bentley, former Ambassador to Russia and Consul General HongKong
John Bowan, former Ambassador to Germany
Alison Broinowski, former Charge d’Affaires to Jordan
Richard Broinowski, former Ambassador to Mexico, Korea and Vietnam
John Brook, former Ambassador to Vietnam and Algiers
Ross Cottrill, Executive Director Australian Institute of International Affairs,
Peter Curtis, former Ambassador to France, CG New York and High Com. India
Rawdon Dalrymple, AO, former Ambassador to United States, Japan, Indonesia and Israel
Malcolm Dan, former Ambassador to Argentina and Chile
Stephen Fitzgerald AO, former Ambassador to China
Geoff Forrester, former Deputy Secretary Department Foreign Affairs and Trade
Robert Furlonger, former Director General ONA and Head of JIO and Ambassador to Indonesia
Ross Garnaut, AO, former Ambassador to China
Ian Haig AM, former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and UAE.
Robert Hamilton, former Ambassador to Mexico, El Salvador and Cuba
Cavan Hogue, former H.C. to Malaysia, Ambassador to Thailand, and United Nations (Security Council)
Roger Holdich, former Director General of Intelligence and Ambassador to Korea
Gordon Jockel, former Chairman of the National Intelligence Committee and Ambassador to Thailand and Indonesia
Tony Kevin, former Ambassador to Cambodia and Poland.
Peter Lloyd, AM, former Ambassador to Iraq
Alf Parsons, AO former High Commissioner to United Kingdom, High Commissioner to Singapore, Malaysia.
Ted Pocock AM , former High Commissioner to Pakistan, Ambassador to France and Morocco, the Soviet Union, Korea and the EU.
Peter Rogers, former Ambassador to Israel
Rory Steele, former Ambassador to Iraq
H. Neil Truscott AM, former Ambassador to Iraq
Ron Walker, former Special Disarmament Adviser, Ambassador to the UN, Geneva, Ambassador to Austria and Chairman of the Board of Governors IAEA
Garry Woodard, former High Commissioner to Malaysia and Ambassador to China