Kathy Mark / The Independent – 2007-07-08 08:17:22
SYDNEY ( July 6, 2007 — The Australian Defence Minister, Brendan Nelson has admitted that oil was a major factor in the government’s decision to keep troops in Iraq, a unexpectedly frank confession that sent political commentators into a tizzy.
Australia, a staunch supporter of President George Bush’s foreign policy, joined the US-led invasion of Iraq, saying the assault was about destroying weapons of mass destruction and fighting international terrorism.
But protesters have always claimed that the real motive was oil, and Mr Nelson’s interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation yesterday seem to have proved them right.
“Energy security is extremely important to all nations throughout the world, and of course in protecting and securing Australia’s interests,” Mr Nelson said. “Obviously the Middle East itself, not only Iraq but the entire region, is an important supplier of energy, oil in particular, to the rest of the world. Australians and all of us need to think what would happen if there was a premature withdrawal from Iraq.”
But his comments provoked a swift denial from Prime Minister John Howard, who backed away from Mr Nelson’s position, denying he – or Mr Nelson – had said that securing oil supply was a key factor.
“We’re not there because of oil, and we didn’t go there because of oil, we don’t remain there because of oil,” Mr Howard told the Sydney commercial radio station 2GB. “A lot of oil comes from the Middle East, we all know that, but the reason we remain there is we want to give the people of Iraq a possibility of embracing democracy.”
He said Australia’s main reasons for remaining in Iraq were to prevent violence between Sunni and Shia, help the US combat terrorism and stabilise the region. But he said safeguarding oil supplies was an important part of bringing stability. A defence review concluded that maintaining “resource security” in the Middle East was a priority.
Australia, which continues to back the increasingly unpopular war, initially sent 2,000 troops. It still has 1,000 troops there, supported by 600 air force and navy personnel in the region.
The opposition Labour Party has promised to withdraw most Australian troops from Iraq if it wins a general election later this year. Labour’s defence spokesman, Robert McClelland, said yesterday: “It’s taken them four years to acknowledge that fact (the importance of oil).”
Hugh White, a defence analyst at the Lowy Institute, a think-tank, said: “In the kind of washing machine of different arguments that they’ve been tossing around, the oil has come to the surface, so to speak, accidentally.”
The Australian Treasurer, Peter Costello, backed the Prime Minister. “We’re fighting for something much more important here than oil,” he said. “This is about democracy and freedom in the Middle East.”
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