Troops' secret role in Iraq
Author: Brian Toohey
Publication: Financial Review
Australian troops are conducting clandestine operations in Iraq that go far beyond what has been revealed to the Australian public or the Labor opposition.
The troops are part of a US-led program that spans the full gamut of special operations, including counter-insurgency, kidnapping, demolition and protecting visiting VIPs.
Between 30 and 40 specially trained Australian troops are engaged in these operational activities. More than 200 personnel are involved in back-up roles in the Middle East and Australia. The activities of the special operations group, which have been confirmed by sources in Australia, the US and France, create problems for both sides of politics in the lead-up to an election.
The program complicates Labor's promise to bring troops home by Christmas if it wins.
Labor has operated on the premise that the main issue facing it before Christmas would be whether to pull out troops training the new Iraqi army and navy and guarding the Australian embassy in Baghdad. The government's problems are likely to revolve around questions of whether it has been candid with the public about what Australian forces are doing in Iraq and whether their previously undisclosed role helps or harms Australia's security.
The government says the majority of the troops committed to the Iraq invasion were withdrawn last May, including a Special Air Service squadron. It had said the SAS was being dispatched to the Middle East before the invasion, but it disputed reports that special forces entered Iraq well before the start of the war. There had been no subsequent announcement that other members of the SAS were later seconded to a special operations group involved in combating the Iraqi resistance and other tasks.
None of the announced roles in air traffic control, training and embassy protection in the post-invasion phase of the war covered anything like the special operations program outlined in this report. In the past, Australian governments have announced the overseas deployment of special forces during wartime. In the case of the deployments during the Vietnam War and the period of Indonesian confrontation with Malaysia, however, the announcements did not give a full description of the tasks involved.
Some Australian-based personnel are concerned about aspects of the current program, particularly the use of Australian troops to facilitate a contentious handover of large sums of cash to American civilians. On another occasion, an Australian unit broke off a counter-insurgency operation to avoid being implicated when US forces used heavy machine guns to fire into a hostile Iraqi crowd.
Other concerns involved the poor quality of intelligence used to identify alleged resistance members to be "snatched" from their homes for interrogation. (Australians are not involved in interrogations.) The Australian members of the special operations group deployed to the Middle East are drawn mainly from extremely fit young men who already have SAS or similar training.
A number have been sent for further training in France, the United States and the United Kingdom before being committed to operations.
Despite French opposition to the Iraq invasion, training occurs on a base outside Paris used by the National Police Intervention Group (GIGN). Although formed in 1974 as a heavily armed police unit, GIGN is more akin to an army special forces team whose activities include a global counter-terrorist role.
For the purposes of this special operations program involving Australians, the instructors are from the covert action arm of the American CIA and from GIGN staff.
The course includes instruction in assassination techniques which the Australian graduates have not yet been asked to put into practice, so far as can be ascertained. However, Australian officials are aware that assassinations are carried out by other teams under French and US supervision. (The French target non-Iraqis designated as terrorists in the Middle East.)
Australian members of the special operations program are based at a location in one of the Gulf states which this newspaper has agreed not to disclose. They usually work in teams of four to six and spend four days on an operation and four days off. Every three months they are flown to a luxury clinic in Europe for relaxation and checks on their health and stress levels.
Although they are serving in the Australian army, their fatigues give no indication of the units to which they are attached as administrative "cover" for these operations. Tax-free pay can be as much as $8000 a week. Program members are advised to avoid the attention of the Australian money laundering agency, Austrac, by remitting less than $10,000 at a time to an Australian bank.
Although an Australian civilian is in nominal control of the Australian contingent, the program is run as part of a US special operations program in the Middle East and elsewhere. There are unconfirmed reports that the Australian civilian works for the Australian Secret Intelligence Service. Operational transport and most weaponry and equipment is supplied by the US.
A typical operation involves being flown into Iraq for four days before being flown out again.Other assignments include protecting US officials during trips to meet warlords in Afghanistan.
One assignment had no apparent connection to efforts to stabilise Iraq or Afghanistan. This entailed a clandestine meeting at an offshore location in the Middle East where a non-Iraqi official handed over millions of dollars in cash to an American civilian involved in the Washington political scene.
Other meetings have required the Australians to protect senior US business executives visiting Iraq who reportedly have high levels of political connections in Washington.
Australian officials in Canberra have also been told about concerns that US forces are too willing to use excessive force. Apart from undermining the ultimate goal of winning the confidence of the Iraqi people, there are worries about the possible breaches of the laws of war.
In one case, an Australian unit left when US troops called in armoured vehicles to machine-gun a crowd from which a small number of shots had been fired.
Another difficulty involves doubts about the quality of the intelligence provided from the US. On some occasions, it turns out to be based on little more than accusations from an Iraqi feuding with a neighbour.
These previously unknown troop activities present Labor with the dilemma of whether it would, if it won the election, continue Australian participation in a contentious special operations program while withdrawing troops giving basic training to the Iraqi army and navy.
The government's response is simpler. In answer to a question from this newspaper, a spokeswoman for Defence Minister Robert Hill said: "There are no Australian special operations being conducted in Iraq."
In answer to a follow-up question about whether Australians were participating in a US-led program, she said there were no Australian personnel involved in special operations in Iraq.