The Australian Government contributed a range of military forces to the US-led coalition in Iraq between 2003 and 2008. The nature of the contribution changed over time not only for operational reasons, but also because of domestic considerations.
The initial contribution to the 2003 invasion of Iraq was called ‘Operation Falconer’ and consisted of three Royal Australian Navy ships, 500 special forces soldiers, P-3 Orion maritime patrol aircraft, C-130 Hercules transport aircraft and No. 75 Squadron RAAF (which included 14 F/A-18 Hornet fighters). These forces were integrated into larger U.S. and UK formations rather than a concentrated Australian unit.
The overall purpose of the Australian contribution to the ‘Coalition of the Willing’ for the invasion of Iraq was clearly and consistently stated from the outset. In the words of then Prime Minister John Howard’s public statements, it was to “deprive Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction” which are a “direct undeniable and lethal threat to Australia”, as well as to remove “a dictatorship of a particularly horrific kind”.
Since the invasion it has been found that the weapons of mass destruction did not exist, but the invasion at least enabled that fact to be fully and finally determined. The second objective to remove Saddam Hussein’s regime was achieved and Australia demonstrated its willingness to fight for the values – principally, for people to have the right to self-determination – which it believes are important in conjunction with other like-minded states – including the U.S. and the UK.
Australian military forces made an important, though limited, contribution to Coalition operations during the invasion of Iraq and almost all of these forces returned to Australia soon after the end of major combat operations. No Australian personnel were killed or taken prisoner during the invasion.
In July 2003 the nature of Australia’s military contribution to the rehabilitation and reconstruction of Iraq evolved and was called ‘Operation Catalyst’. Operation Catalyst was initiated under the authority of UN Security Council Resolution 1483 which empowered the U.S. and UK-led coalition, making it the legitimate and legal governing and peacekeeping authority, and recognized the creation of a transitional governing council of Iraqis.
Initially, the Australian forces involved in Operation Catalyst was limited to specialists attached to the Coalition headquarters in Baghdad and the search for Iraq’s suspected weapons of mass destruction; a frigate in the Persian Gulf; a party of air traffic controllers at Baghdad International Airport; two C-130 Hercules transport aircraft; two AP-3C Orion aircraft and a Security Detachment (SECDET) protecting the Australian diplomats based in Baghdad.
The force was later expanded to include an Army training detachment and a small medical detachment attached to a U.S. Air Force hospital. The RAN has also assumed command of coalition forces in the Persian Gulf on three occasions – Combined Task Force 58 in 2005 and Combined Task Force 158 in 2006 and briefly in 2008.
During 2003 and 2004 the Australian Government was reported to have refused requests from the U.S. and UN to increase Australia’s contribution to the Multi-national Force in Iraq through taking over the responsibility for providing security to a province or sector of Iraq.
In February 2005 the Australian Government announced that the Australian Army would deploy a 500 soldier strong light armoured battle group to Al-Muthanna Province to provide security for the Japanese engineers deployed to the province as well as to help train Iraqi Security Forces. The Al-Muthanna Task Group was on the ground by mid-2005.
Following the withdrawal of the Japanese force and the transfer of security to Iraqi control in al-Muthanna Province in July 2006, the Task Group relocated to Tallil Air Base in neighbouring Dhi Qar Province. Responsibility for overwatch in Dhi Qar was subsequently assumed from the withdrawing Italian contingent in late October 2006. The name Al-Muthanna Task Group was subsequently changed to Overwatch Battle Group (West) to reflecting the unit’s evolving role.
Under Operation Catalyst, Australian Defence Force personnel also trained approximately 36,000 members of the Iraqi Army, Navy and Marines, including the conduct of specialist training in logistics support, counter-insurgency operations and maritime interception and interdiction operations in protecting Iraq’s vital offshore resources so critical to its economic future. By late 2006 the overall personnel numbers committed to Operation Catalyst had risen to 1400.
As pledged in the lead up to the December 2007 Australian federal election, the Rudd Labor Government directed the withdrawal of Australian forces involved in combat operations in Iraq early in 2008. The bulk of the forces for Operation Catalyst were withdrawn by mid-2008 and the remainder was completely withdrawn from Iraq by the end of July 2009.
Although several Australian Defence Force members were wounded none were killed in action during Operation Falconer or Operation Catalyst. Sadly however, two died in accidents – Warrant Officer David Nary and Private Jake Kovco. David Nary was serving with the Special Air Service Regiment and was killed on 5 November 2005 after being struck by a vehicle during a training exercise in Kuwait prior to deployment to Iraq. Jake Kovco was serving as part of the Security Detachment in Baghdad when he was killed on 21 April 2006 from a gunshot wound to the head that was believed to have been accidentally self-inflicted.
Approximately 20,000 ADF personnel served as part of Operations Falconer and Catalyst. A “Welcome Home Parade” was conducted for them on 21 November 2009 in Canberra.