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Project Iraq 2014 isn’t like 2003, Coalition and Labor say

Prime Minister Tony Abbott is seeking to assure voters that the current situation in Iraq is different from the 2003 Iraq War. AAP/Alan Porritt

As Australia’s role begins to unfold in a new chapter of the Iraq saga, the 2003 invasion is a point of reference for all political sides.

Tony Abbott, aware of the sour taste left by that war, is seeking the reassure the public that this will not be a repeat.

With Afghanistan also in mind, he said in a statement to parliament on Monday: “Many Australians are understandably apprehensive about the risk of becoming involved in another long and costly conflict in the Middle East”.

But while doing anything involved risks and consequences, so did doing nothing, he argued.

“As things stand, doing nothing means leaving millions of people exposed to death, forced conversion and ethnic cleansing.”

Making the rounds of morning TV earlier, Abbott sought to sharply distinguish between 2003 and the present.

“They are two very different situations. In 2003, there was a campaign in Iraq against the will of the Iraqi government. What’s happening now is an involvement, essentially a humanitarian involvement, and it is at the request of the Americans with the support of the Iraqi government. Our aircraft going into the Kurdish parts of Iraq will be landing at Baghdad for customs clearance and all the rest of it and then they will be going on to Erbil” and the Kurdish regional government.

He was also at pains to once again stress that “I do rule out combat troops on the ground”, although leaving the way very clearly open for greater military involvement by Australia.

Bill Shorten is anxious, too, to distance the situation now, when he is shoulder to shoulder with Abbott as Australian participation grows, from then, when Labor opposed Australia’s involvement.

Shorten told parliament: “More than a decade ago, Simon Crean stood at this dispatch box as Labor leader to support our troops, but oppose a war. History has vindicated his judgement.

“The decision to go to war in 2003 was based on false evidence and a false premise. It was a rushed decision, devoid of an effective plan to win the peace, devoid of clear objectives and devoid of widespread international support.

“As the government has said, the situation we face today is very different.

“In 2003, we went to Iraq without international support and without the support of the majority of the Iraqi population.

“Today, the Iraqi government is speaking with the international community, seeking our humanitarian assistance. Today, we have a United States adopting a more methodical, more international inclusive approach. Today, we can look to the nations of the region, the Arabic leaders, for their part in a solution to this problem.”

The caution of Barack Obama makes it easier for Labor to give backing although the concerns also come through in the interviews given by deputy leader Tanya Plibersek, who is from the left.

The Greens draw a clear comparison with 2003.

Leader Christine Milne said in the Senate: “Have we learnt nothing from the engagement in Iraq in 2003? We then had Prime Minister Howard run straight along behind the United States President, Bush, and the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair – and what a mess that left … What is to say that engagement of troops in Iraq will not simply drive an even more united, committed and disastrous move for an Islamic state than is already occurring?

“The point here is: very few people believe that the Prime Minister of Australia has a strategic plan for Australian engagement in Iraq. Everybody believes that we are simply running behind President Obama, who himself last week said he does not have a strategy.”

In a rare moment of parliamentary togetherness, Coalition and Labor united on Monday to defeat Milne’s attempt to suspend standing orders for a motion “relating to parliamentary approval for the deployment of Australian troops in Iraq”.

On Thursday the Greens will bring on a private member’s bill saying that, as far as constitutionally and practically possible, both houses of parliament should have to approve overseas military involvement by Australian defence personnel.

Politically the Greens would hope to pick up some support from among those ALP voters who oppose Australia’s involvement.

The Australian public through polls in coming weeks will indicate their opinion. In the US, a Washington Post-ABC poll taken August 13-17 found 54% support for the American air strikes (39% against), but 49% opposition to providing arms and ammunition to the Kurdish military forces (45% support).

The question mark in both countries is where the new Iraqi journey, with the challenge of helping to take on Islamic State (which Abbott calls “a death cult”), will lead the US and its allies including Australia.

Arms runs likely to be step to deeper Australian role against Islamic State

Australian Defence Force chief Air Chief Marshal Mark Binskin and Prime Minister Tony Abbott face the media on Sunday. AAP/Lukas Coch

When Tony Abbott says he doesn’t want to get ahead of himself on Australia’s Middle East commitment – specifically about joining air strikes – what he means is that he can’t get ahead of Barack Obama.

The government announced on Sunday that Australia would help transport stores of military equipment, including arms and munitions, to Kurdish fighters in Iraq.

This was at the Americans' request as part of a multi-national effort that also included the United Kingdom, Canada, France and Italy. The arms, sourced from eastern Europe, will be handed over on the ground.

Abbott told a news conference, at which he was flanked by the Australian Defence Force chief, Air Chief Marshal Mark Binskin, that cabinet’s national security committee had taken “a decision in principle” and the cabinet supported that decision.

Asked about timing, Abbott said it was taken to the cabinet earlier than cabinet’s meeting a week ago. The request was made “in general terms some time ago [and] crystallised into specificity a few days ago”.

Apparently a general request was put out to relevant countries around mid-August: eastern European countries were asked for weapons and the others for transportation assistance.

It can be presumed that the next steps in the escalation of Australia’s role are already in the pipeline.

Just as the weapons airlift was briefed by the government to the News Corp Sunday papers before being announced, so the next stage was flagged in Saturday’s Australian.

The Australian’s foreign editor, Greg Sheridan, who is close to Abbott, wrote that the government was considering deploying SAS soldiers, Super Hornet fighters and sophisticated airborne early warning and control aircraft as part of the fight against Islamic State.

Notably, Sheridan said that the SAS special forces were “not conventional combat ground forces” and so their deployment would not breach the government’s commitment not to put combat troops on the ground.

This followed Defence Minister David Johnston last week saying, when asked on the ABC’s Lateline whether the Prime Minister’s promise of no combat troops included the SAS: “Well, no combat troops on the ground. If you define the SAS as combat troops, that’s the answer.”

When Abbott on Sunday was asked to guarantee no special forces would be sent, he did not do so.

The ground component would be significant - the special forces' part would be defined as activities that help enable the air strikes and perhaps provide some sort of training for the Kurdish fighters.

But the course and timing of events depend on American decisions. The US wants the Iraqis to form an inclusive government (deadline September 10 when the new prime minister takes over) and is also putting pressure on neighbouring countries to ensure they don’t undermine the efforts against Islamic State.

Developments, such as how things work out with the new Iraqi administration, could always blow things off course. But barring that, the US activity can be expected to escalate and Australia’s involvement would be set to deepen significantly.

With parliament entering the second week of its sitting fortnight, Sunday’s announcement will change the political emphasis. The battle over the budget won’t disappear but it will be somewhat relegated in the news.

Quite apart from the substance of this very serious situation with Islamic State, Team Abbott is attuned to the political implications domestically.

It gives the Prime Minister an opportunity to rise above the day-to-day fray. So far the national security issue has worked to his advantage.

He is linking what happens far away to Australia’s backyard. “While we understandably shrink from reaching out to these conflicts, the truth is that these conflicts reach out to us,” he said, pointing to some 60 Australians involved with terrorist groups in the Middle East and another 100 actively supporting them from here.

Abbott also specifically tied in killings overseas to the danger of terrorism at home. “If it’s right [for terrorists] to kill in the name of god in Iraq, there is no reason to think that the same people won’t do likewise if they get the chance elsewhere, including in Australia,” he said.

“The people who are active in the terrorist groups in northern Iraq and elsewhere hate us as much as they hate the people that they are currently attacking. They hate us not for what we have done, they hate us for who we are and for what we are.”

So far, the threat level hasn’t been raised in Australia, although in Britain on Friday it was raised from substantial to severe.

Asked whether Australian action increased the threat of terrorism inside Australia Abbott noted ASIO chief David Irvine’s opinion last week that “in his professional judgement [there was] no specific correlation between what the Australian government might do in the Middle East and domestic terrorist threats”.

Abbot was dismissive of calls from the Greens and independent MP Andrew Wilkie that parliament should have a role in what Australia does in Iraq.

“This government’s intention is to abide by the standard conventions which have always been applied to the deployment of Australian military forces: consideration by the national security committee of the cabinet, consideration of the cabinet, and consultation with the opposition.”

For its part, the opposition has embraced the latest step and is likely to do the same with the next. Deputy Labor leader Tanya Plibersek on Sunday was at pains to distinguish the current situation from that prevailing in the “disaster” of 2003 when Australia joined the Iraq mission.

It may get more awkward for Shorten to stick close to Abbott as the action escalates, but he knows that to do anything else will mean the government will be quick to make Labor and him the issue.

Listen to the latest Politics with Michelle Grattan podcast, with Age Discrimination Commissioner Susan Ryan, here.

Abbott government is readying to put on the khaki

Iraqis stand next the coffins of three victims, who were killed in a car bomb attack in Baghdad. AAP/Khider Abbas

Australia is moving steadily towards becoming part of widened American air strikes against militants of the Islamic State, as the Abbott government’s policy increasingly takes on a khaki hue.

Defence Minister David Johnston said on Wednesday night the RAAF’s 24 Super Hornets would be “an obvious first port of call” if Australia were to join air strikes – “they’re exactly what flies off US aircraft carriers” – and they were at a high state of readiness at all times.

But he indicated a vital step would be when the new Iraqi Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, took over on September 10, because the US and other countries would want to see an inclusive government.

“If he’s inclusive, I think that will make things a lot more visible, tangible and concrete,” Johnston told the ABC.

But a “whole host of things”, including receiving an invitation from the Iraqi government and setting rules of engagement, would have to be settled before “we start talking about deploying these sorts of systems into the field”.

The New York Times has quoted American officials saying they expected Britain and Australia would be willing to join the United States in an air campaign.

According to the report, the officials said the US had begun to mobilise a broad coalition of allies behind potential American military action in Syria and was moving toward expanded airstrikes in northern Iraq.

Tony Abbott’s office said in a statement on Wednesday: “Our response to any request from the United States, or other close allies and partners, will be based on whether there is an achievable overall humanitarian purpose and a clear and proportionate role for Australia as well as on a careful assessment of the risks.

“Australia is not considering putting combat forces on the ground - nor, for that matter, is the United States.”

Asked whether Australia could participate in operations in Syria, Johnston at first said no but then left that open. The priority and focus now was humanitarian, the preservation of innocent lives in Iraq, but “we do not have a crystal ball here”.

Pressed on whether Abbott’s statement about no combat troops ruled out sending SAS, he said: “If you define SAS as combat troops that’s the answer.” But when quizzed on whether this would be a permanent decision Johnston said: “I’m talking about the now. And speculation as to what we might do in the future is really quite unproductive when we’re talking about capability.”

He said a number of Australian Defence Force personnel were deployed around the region but he was not prepared to discuss what they were doing.

“Let’s not get into who’s where and what’s happening,” he said. “The public really I don’t think need to know anything other than that we have a very good state of readiness.”

Australia has already participated in a humanitarian air drop. Abbott has been anxious to secure a part in further US action, and has previously been more gung ho than President Barack Obama about what should be done.

Abbott is seeking to become, in the public mind, the prime minister for national security.

The conflicts in Iraq and Syria are linked to a security risk at home through the Australians who have left to become fighters in those countries. A faraway conflict becomes a domestic threat and feeds into domestic politics.

The government, struggling on the budget front, believes the security issue can be made to work for it politically; the opposition fears it can.

The challenge for opposition leader Bill Shorten is to avoid letting national security become a battleground.

A move to join the air strikes would be expected to have bipartisan support. For the opposition, the tipping point would be combat troops. Abbott has ruled that out, although what this precisely means is less clear, as was obvious when Johnston was pressed.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said: “What Australia does will depend very much on what the Iraqi Government asks us to do, or consents to us doing, and likewise with the United States.”

Shorten’s desire will be to stay as bipartisan as possible. This he can do unless Abbott pushes the envelope too hard. Even ALP left sources said they did not believe there would be a problem with the party backing air strikes, although one left-winger, Melissa Parke, spoke out.

Parke said that as a member of the UN Security Council, Australia “ought to be exercising its influence there to try to get an international agreement on urgent humanitarian intervention to protect civilians, rather than be part of some separate non-United Nations-backed coalition of the willing”.

The Greens are the dissident party. Deputy leader Adam Bandt said on Wednesday: “The Greens have been raising concerns about ‘mission creep’ for some time now. This latest [NYT] report is worryingly consistent with the Prime Minister’s confirmation that talks are underway which could see Australian troops sent off to war.”

Apart from preparing to join with US action, Abbott is readying to go to the United Nations late next month when President Obama chairs a special Security Council meeting to discuss the problem of foreign fighters joining the war in Syria and Iraq.

The government has anti-terrorism measures before parliament and is working up more. These present some challenges for Labor on civil liberty grounds, but it will try to deal with them.

National security is featuring in parliamentary questions from government backbenchers this week. Abbott on Wednesday told the House that counter-terrorism units were being set up from last week at Australian international airports, and are operating in Sydney and Melbourne. One man has already been stopped departing from Melbourne airport.

Abbott said an additional 80 border force officers would be stationed at the airports to monitor the movements of people on the national security watch lists.

The head of ASIO, David Irvine, appearing at the National Press Club, was asked whether, if Australia were to take part in a Coalition activity in northern Iraq, that would increase the risk of a local attack and foment some anger and difficulties in the Islamic community in Australia.

“There would certainly be reactions within the Australian community,” Irvine said. But the “very large bulk of the Australian community, Muslim community, is law-abiding, and while there may be reactions and not just from that community but elsewhere, I don’t see any immediate correlation between that and the threat levels”.

He added, however, that “you can expect that is something we would be looking at”.

Politics is starting to move on two tracks: the row over the budget, where Labor has everything going for it, and national security, which Abbott can potentially use to change, at least partially, the political dynamic.