Australia’s military involvement in the war in Iraq between 2003 and 2009 was controversial, but irrespective of the views in support or against the intervention it is a chapter in Australia’s military history that should be recorded and examined. In the absence of any official history anytime soon this article presents a personal perspective. But to understand that perspective, an understanding of the nature of the Australian contribution, and in turn to understand that contribution in the context of the wider war is a helpful start point.
Understanding ‘the War in Iraq’
The US-led intervention in Iraq wasn’t one single war, and the term ‘the war in Iraq’ doesn’t promote meaningful discussion on the subject. This period of history can be better described as an evolving series of different conflicts.
The most easily-defined stage of the conflict was the invasion of Iraq by the US-led coalition in March 2003, which displaced Saddam Hussein’s regime, defeated the Iraqi Army and disbanded the Baath Party. But this military victory did not automatically translate into political success. Without a final catastrophic defeat or the signing of a surrender document, members of the ousted Iraqi regime continued to resist the occupation, and began an insurgency against the Coalition Provisional Authority and those Iraqis who cooperated with the coalition.
The US-led coalition clearly misjudged the result of these actions and the way in which the long-standing enmities between the Sunnis, Shias and Kurds in Iraq, and among the myriad of tribal groups, would resurface. The minority Sunni population had ruled Iraq for several decades; it was payback time for the Shias. The arrival of the US in Iraq also provided an opportunity for the Sunni-oriented al-Qaeda to open a new front in its war against the US and the West. The US presence in Iraq acted like a rallying call and lightning rod for al-Qaeda fighters. This complex mix resulted in a volatile and growing cycle of violence between 2004 and 2007. Coalition troops responded with a range of force-protection measures that made them more difficult targets but, at the same time, also effectively disengaged them from the local population.
Al-Qaeda took full advantage of this situation, attacking Shias who were cooperating with the Coalition Provisional Authority, and later the Shia-dominated Iraqi government. Al-Qaeda’s destruction of the Shia al-Askari mosque in Samarra on 22 February 2006 is now recognised as a milestone event. Not surprisingly, Shia elements of the Iraqi population responded in kind, provoking considerable debate over whether Iraq had descended into civil war. This phase, over 2006 and 2007, constituted a civil war. Yet this fact was never acknowledged or accepted by the Iraqi government or the coalition, out of fear that such an admission might allow al-Qaeda to claim some kind of victory.
The coalition tried desperately to improve the situation by targeting the malevolent actors perpetuating the violence, as well as trying to improve the number and quality of the Iraqi security forces – with limited degrees of success in each case. The situation had to be toughed out and, sadly, it was the Iraqi people who bore the brunt. Yet the Iraqi people themselves are not completely blameless. Many Iraqis became willingly involved in sectarian violence, and coalition troops essentially became spectators to a situation they were not resourced to prevent. The conviction remained that only developing the Iraqi security forces and transferring the responsibility for security offered a way out, although reality told that elements within the developing Iraqi security forces were part of the problem.
A great deal of blood was shed before the Iraqi people decided to step back from the precipice and break the cycle of violence. This manifested itself firstly in the ‘Sunni Awakening’ in 2006 in which the Sunni population rejected al-Qaeda and its urging to attack Shia targets. Against the backdrop of the US troop surge in 2007 and 2008, and the growing size and confidence of the Iraqi security forces, the Sunni shift was then matched by a ‘ceasefire’ declared by Moqtada al-Sadr and his Shia Mahdi Army. Throughout 2005 and 2006, a popular view prevailed that the coalition presence in Iraq was the problem and that the security situation would improve if foreign troops withdrew. The US troop surge, coupled with an increase in the number and quality of Iraqi security forces, proved conversely that security could only be achieved through a more pervasive injection of capable security forces, particularly in the populous cities.
Many blame the United States for the deteriorating security situation in Iraq between 2004 and 2007. Much of that blame was warranted, as this was a US-led venture. To its credit, however, the Obama administration, rather than “cutting and running” in 2009, fulfilled its moral obligation to ensure that the original intent of the intervention was pursued and resourced, albeit with revised, lowered goals. A larger portion of the blame for the rising levels of violence undoubtedly rests with al-Qaeda. This renegade organisation chose to turn Iraq into a battleground in its war against the US and the West and, even more disturbingly, adopted a strategy of seeking to instigate a civil war between Sunni and Shia Iraqis as a means to advance its cause. Yet, because al-Qaeda is not a government and accountable to any electorate, this group will likely never be held accountable for its actions. Unlike al-Qaeda and the Iraqi militias, the coalition never deliberately targeted non-combatant civilians. As the coalition’s operations became more discriminating over time, al-Qaeda’s became less discriminating. Iraqis grew weary of being killed by al-Qaeda’s suicide bombers in the name of Allah and some ill-defined anti-Western objectives.
The violence now is largely limited to the occasional suicide bombing by the remnants of al-Qaeda in Iraq, the work of setting Iraq on a new and better path has begun in earnest. In many respects, the story is only now picking up where it left off immediately after the 2003 invasion. The costly lesson for Iraqis is that representative government – for all its faults – can and does work. For Iraqis, the business of religious and ethnic reconciliation, compromise and learning to live together in harmony has begun anew.
The Australian Contribution
The Australian government contributed military forces to the US-led coalition in Iraq between 2003 and 2009 based on multiple decisions over those six years. The nature of the military contribution changed over time, not only for operational reasons, but also because of domestic political considerations.
The initial contribution to the 2003 invasion of Iraq was known as ‘Operation Falconer’ and consisted of three Royal Australian Navy (RAN) 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 fighter aircraft. These forces were integrated into larger US and British formations rather than deployed as 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, Australia’s contribution sought to ‘deprive Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction’ which posed a ‘direct, undeniable and lethal threat to Australia’, as well as to remove ‘a dictatorship of a particularly horrific kind’.
While the reputed weapons of mass destruction did not exist, the invasion allowed that fact to be fully and finally determined. The second objective – to remove Saddam Hussein’s regime – was successfully achieved. Australia demonstrated its willingness to fight for those values it believes in – principally, for people to have the right to self-determination. In this fight, Australia joined other like-minded states, including the US and UK.
The government was stridently criticised by vocal segments of the Australian public for supporting the US-led invasion of Iraq. Perhaps the case for intervention might have been better made solely on humanitarian grounds. At the time, however, the memory of the September 11 attacks remained vivid and anthrax-filled letters to media offices and senators in the US fuelled speculation and fear about the possible confluence of weapons of mass destruction and terrorism.
Australian forces made an important, though limited, contribution to coalition operations during the invasion of Iraq. No Australians were killed or taken prisoner during the invasion. Almost all of these forces returned to Australia soon after the end of major combat operations in mid-2003.
In July 2003, the nature of the Australian military contribution to the rehabilitation and reconstruction of Iraq evolved and was named ‘Operation Catalyst’. Operation Catalyst was initiated under the authority of UN Security Council Resolution 1483, which empowered the US and UK-led coalition, making it the legitimate and legal governing and peacekeeping authority, and recognising the creation of a transitional governing council of Iraqis.
Initially, the Australian forces involved in Operation Catalyst were limited to a handful of detachments. These included 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 surveillance aircraft; and a security detachment protecting the Australian diplomats based in the embassy in Baghdad. The force was later expanded to include an Army training team and a small medical detachment attached to a US Air Force hospital. The RAN 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 reportedly refused requests from the US and the UN to increase Australia’s contribution to the multinational force in Iraq to take responsibility for providing security in a province or sector of Iraq. In February 2005, however, the Australian government announced that the Australian Army would deploy a 500-strong light armoured battle group to Al-Muthanna province to provide security for 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 reflect the unit’s evolving role.
Under Operation Catalyst, Australian Defence Force personnel also trained approximately 33,000 members of the Iraqi Army, Navy and Marines, providing specialist training in logistics support, counter-insurgency operations, and maritime interception and interdiction operations aimed at protecting Iraq’s offshore resources, so critical to its economic future. By late 2006, the overall numbers committed to Operation Catalyst at any one time had risen to 1400.
As pledged in the lead-up to the November 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 forces for Operation Catalyst were withdrawn by mid-2008, the remainder by the end of July 2009. The total number of Australian Defence Force members who served in Iraq between 2003 and 2009 is estimated at over 20,000.
Although several Australian Defence Force members were wounded, none were killed in action during Operation Falconer or Operation Catalyst. However, two soldiers died in accidents – Warrant Officer David Nary and Private Jake Kovco. David Nary was serving with the Special Air Service Regiment, and was killed prior to his deployment to Iraq when he was struck by a vehicle during a training exercise in Kuwait on 5 November 2005. 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, believed to have been accidentally self-inflicted.
The Australian government managed its contribution in Iraq as a war of choice undertaken as an act of solidarity with the United States. John Howard’s Coalition government walked a fine line between being seen to make a meaningful contribution to the coalition and reaching the limits of what was domestically palatable and politically viable. The initial public backlash against the invasion and the poorly-managed occupation and reconstruction effort created a perception that the war was a mistake and that Australia should have no part in it. This was exactly the perception that al-Qaeda was trying to generate in an effort to deter new or to strip away existing coalition partners. Most coalition partners that contributed forces after the initial invasion held their nerve between 2003 and 2008, while others withdrew their contingents as a result of domestic pressure.
While Australia’s military contribution to the rehabilitation and reconstruction of Iraq ticked the requisite coalition contribution boxes, the contribution was too small and never really carried a fair share of the load. Australia could have – and should have – contributed a great deal more. Australia did not contribute any ground combat troops between mid-2003 and mid-2005 – precisely the period when more troops on the ground may have made a difference. If we and other countries had contributed more forces in mid-2003, the security situation might have improved sooner – or may not even have deteriorated – and fewer innocent Iraqis might have suffered.
As a long-standing ally and friend of the United States, Australia should have been more supportive. The British government certainly understood the importance of standing beside the United States for the duration. But, at the same time, Britain understood that it could also help by acting as an honest friend, offering criticism and advice to its US partner. Many of the Australians working as individuals within the US-led headquarters and units sought to influence policies and tactics for the better. In the end, however, Australia and the UK both stood beside the US until mid-2009, when the Iraqi government, for reasons of its own, decided to reduce the ‘coalition of the willing’ to a coalition of one.
My War in Iraq
I served in Iraq for nine-months in 2008 and 2009 as an embedded staff officer developing theatre level operational plans in the Combined Joint Operations Directorate of the Multi-National Force – Iraq Headquarters in Baghdad. I worked on a number of contingency plans – many of which were sadly never executed. After returning to Australia I wrote a book that I hoped might allow people to get a better feel for what it means to be a member of the ADF and what it is like to go on a deployment to places like Iraq and Afghanistan. I wrote it for readers with no prior knowledge of the military and also in the first person and present tense, which was intended to add to the sense of the reader embarking on the journey beside me.
I look back on my operational deployment to Iraq with a sense of great pride and achievement. It was a unique professional experience, and I was proud to serve as part of Operation Catalyst. I have yet to meet an Australian soldier, sailor, airman or airwoman who served in Iraq who feels differently. Yet, few Australians appear to understand precisely what these representatives of their country were doing in far-off Iraq. These were ordinary servicemen and women performing the extraordinary at the direction of their democratically-elected government. Australians should be proud of their efforts and grateful for their service and sacrifice.
About the author
Colonel Marcus Fielding served 28 years in the regular army and deployed on operations in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Haiti, East Timor and Iraq. His book about his experiences in Iraq – Red Zone Baghdad – is available at the Shrine bookshop.
Contact Marcus Fielding about this article.