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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

Iran-Iraq War: Diplomats on the ground

Southerly Vol 75 No 3, 2016

Rory Steele

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.


June 2016

 8 August 2004



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 Nations.

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