GEORGE NEGUS: Paul, in David Brill’s piece that we just saw, the Australian commander, the commander of the Australian troops in Iraq, seemed absolutely convinced that if we were to leave, Australia was to leave, the place would be worse off.
You know the situation on the ground. How do you react to that sort of suggestion?
PAUL McGEOGH, INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I think the truth of the Iraq situation today is that the Australian presence doesn’t make any difference, the British presence hardly makes a difference. What does matter is the American presence. The Americans make up the bulk of the foreign troops in Iraq. They are the ones who are the targets, they are the ones who are the problem, if you like, to the extent that a foreign presence makes a problem.
GEORGE NEGUS: So when Alexander Downer and John Howard say that if we were to leave, we were to cut and run, it would be a victory for the terrorists in fact – the term they use for what the rest of us would probably call insurgents.
PAUL McGEOGH: It may well be a victory for the terrorists, or the insurgents, to the extent that a foreign country is seen to be leaving, but the reality of Australia’s presence in Iraq is that Australia didn’t in fact make a decision to go to war, as the Government would like us to believe on a daily basis. What they decided was to agree with George Bush. Australians are in Baghdad to the extent that they’re needed to protect Australian diplomats, otherwise they’re way down in the south-west corner of the country, the back pocket if you like, where if they’re moved a few metres further south they would be in Saudi Arabia.
GEORGE NEGUS: They say there are in a dangerous location, though. Is it dangerous where they are?
PAUL McGEOGH: Anywhere in Iraq is dangerous. To quote a friend of mine who works in Baghdad on a daily basis, he says anywhere in Iraqi is in the bullseye. But having said that, where the Australians are is probably the safest place you could be in Iraq.
GEORGE NEGUS: John Howard’s original mantra was that we would stay there for as long as we needed to be there, till the job is done, that is his phrase. Of late, though, he has been saying we will stay until there is a reasonable chance that democracy will work and succeed in Iraq.
PAUL McGEOGH: The rhetoric has been fantastic in the last couple of weeks because Washington is hedging and changing, in the last few days, Britain has fallen into line. John Howard it doesn’t want to acknowledge that he is changing his position.
GEORGE NEGUS: But he has to.
PAUL McGEOGH: He has to and he is. Previously it had to be a functioning democracy, now it has to be a country that might be sufficiently stable and secure to have a democratic future. But the reality of the rhetoric in this war is that John Howard has to be very careful now because if he doesn’t start positioning himself, he is going to end up still being in Iraq when the Americans and the British pull out.
GEORGE NEGUS: He could be left high and dry. We could be there and the others have already gone.
PAUL McGEOGH: He could be there, holding the fort.
GEORGE NEGUS: What would happen, though, if the coalition of the willing troops were to leave, would it be a totally disintegrated Iraq that we’re looking at, a civil war?
PAUL McGEOGH: We already have civil war. It is a question of how bad that civil war has to get before Iraqis become exhausted, before they get tired of killing each other. You’ve got the Shia in the south, they have got resources. You have got Kurds in the north, they have got resources. In the west and in the centre you’ve got the Sunnis, and they’ve got very little. You can start breaking the country up, as Iraqis have already indicated that they want to do, but if one third have got nothing, they’ve got no reason to stop fighting. The Sunnis already drive the insurgency which has sparked the civil war, to the extent to which is it a civil war now. That fighting, that tension, that conflict will continue. And the great difficulty with Iraq and the great uncertainty is that we’re not sure that the presence or absence of the Americans or foreign troops makes any difference.
GEORGE NEGUS: What are coalition of the willing troops actually doing. If they’re not preventing a civil war, what are they doing?
PAUL McGEOGH: We’re getting used to a lot of jargon language in Iraq. One of the key phrases that emerged very early in the piece was ‘force protection’, that is protecting themselves. They have to be there, according to American policy, but the first thing they have to do while they’re there is to protect themselves. Now, they are not doing a very good job of that at the moment. This month is one of the worst on record for American deaths. For the Iraqis, the last two months, each of them has been the equivalent of a 9/11. Whatever figures you take for the civilian death toll, we are losing about 3,000 Iraqi civilians a month at the moment. The figures are so bad that the Iraqi Government has decided they’re not going to release any more civilian death tolls.
GEORGE NEGUS: Is there a workable exit policy? Is it possible to get out without chaos and civil war? Is it possible to get out without the coalition of the willing countries losing face?
PAUL McGEOGH: Whether the Americans stay or whether they go, this thing is going to play out. It is going to play out because they have lost control. Now, I have great difficulty seeing a situation whereby the Americans will walk away from Iraq because of the loss of face. I think after next month’s mid-term elections in the US, whether or not the Democrats get control of Congress and/or the Senate, any side of American politics is going to have great difficulty walking away from Iraq because of what it will say to the world, and particularly what it will say to the jihadist movement around the world.
GEORGE NEGUS: What about the possibility of dialogue? There is talk now of dialogue, maybe dialogue with the insurgents, except the al-Qa’ida elements.
PAUL McGEOGH: Well, I think the Americans are getting to the point where they will talk to anyone, frankly.
GEORGE NEGUS: Will anybody listen if they do?
PAUL McGEOGH: Some elements will but others won’t. Whatever deal they do with the Sunnis who drive the insurgency, the Shi’ites are going to be most reluctant to cop it. They won’t. The Kurds will be the same. The Americans are now attempting what they should have reviewed before they invaded Iraq because these are the things they needed to address, to say, “Will this be possible?” You should not go into something until you know how you’re going to get out of it. You don’t call an inquiry until you know what the outcome is going to be. These are Politics 101.
GEORGE NEGUS: This being the case, are we staring down the barrel at a protracted, possibly regional conflict, whether or not the Americans, the Australians, the Brits and others stay or go?
PAUL McGEOGH: It is highly likely. Probably less so while the Americans and the Brits stay, but if they go, the risk that Iraq will break into three is very high. That being the case, the Iranians will probably come in – they’re already in helping the Shi’ites in the south – they will come in and do even more so. The Saudis and probably the Jordanians will come in and help the Sunnis in the middle. The Turks are already on record saying that if the Kurds are given anything approximating autonomy in the north they will come in and knock them out.
GEORGE NEGUS: That’s pretty close to the doomsday scenario.
PAUL McGEOGH: There’s not much upside in Iraq these days.
GEORGE NEGUS: Paul, I don’t know whether it’s good to talk to you, it is good to see you.
PAUL McGEOGH: Thanks.