Newsradio, Breakfast - interview with Marius Benson

  • Transcript, E&OE
17 June 2014

MARIUS BENSON: Good morning.

JULIE BISHOP: Good morning Marius.

MARIUS BENSON: Looking at Iraq, what can Australia do

JULIE BISHOP: Well the security situation throughout Iraq is very volatile, it could deteriorate further with little warning. The Australian Government strongly supports the Iraqi Government's ongoing efforts to counter these terrorist attacks. The United States is on standby, it is moving military assets into the Gulf. There's been no indication that the United States would like us to help, indeed there's been no indication from the sovereign Government of Iraq that they would like us to help.

My focus currently is on protecting Australian citizens and our interests in Iraq and particularly our diplomats who are still working there. And so that's the focus of my efforts at present and also the humanitarian situation. The United Kingdom has a team on the ground. The United Kingdom has conducted a humanitarian needs assessment in northern Iraq and so we are working with them to assess what we can provide in terms of humanitarian support.

MARIUS BENSON: The situation is unclear and changing fast but one point that's been made by the United States is everything is on the table except boots, boots on the ground, that's not going to happen. Is that Australia's position to?

JULIE BISHOP: I can't envisage a situation where Australia would send in troops. We certainly support the Iraqi Government's counter efforts against this particularly extreme terrorist group. The Iraqi Security Forces are battling against them at present in various towns in northern Iraq. I understand that the United States will provide support in other ways but not actual troops on the ground.

MARIUS BENSON: But there are reports in the Fairfax papers this morning, not about troops going in in some sort of invasion or permanent presence but lightening raids by specialist SAS units perhaps to assist with Embassy staff moving out. Is an SAS option on the table?

JULIE BISHOP: Well we have in place evacuation plans for our diplomatic staff. We have plans in place for any contingency. We are in fact working very closely with our friends and allies in Iraq – the United States and the United Kingdom because they also have diplomats in Baghdad. So we're cooperating to evacuate staff should that be required. Talking about the SAS would be a very last option. We have contingency plans in place to ensure that our staff are safe.

MARIUS BENSON: And the staff numbers are being reduced to a core?

JULIE BISHOP: That's right I've been in contact with our Ambassador in Iraq. She says the situation in Baghdad is tense but calm. We have reduced our Embassy staff to a core, as have other likeminded countries - the United States, the United Kingdom. They are reducing their staff numbers.

The airport in Baghdad is still open. That's why I'm urging any Australians who are in Iraq to leave as soon as possible while the airport is still open, while commercial flights are still available. I am aware that there are Australians who are working with companies in Iraq who have made separate arrangements for their security and potential evacuation but if there are any Australians in Iraq who don't need to be there our very strong advice is that they leave immediately.

MARIUS BENSON: You referred earlier to the national Government of Iraq but is the reality that in fact it's not a nation now? It's probably at least three nations and the North in fact has gone entirely from Baghdad's control.

JULIE BISHOP: There is a fear that Iraq will 'Balkanise' as they say and there's already the Kurdish Province. Our fear is that ISIS, this particularly extreme jihadist group, will realise its vision for an Islamic State in Iraq, Syria and potentially Lebanon.

As you pointed out in the introduction, this is a splinter group from Al-Qaeda whose activities in Syria are so extreme that even Al-Qaeda has distanced itself from it, so the likes of which we've not seen before. The prospect of there being an Islamic State backed by this ISIS group is deeply disturbing.

MARIUS BENSON: How much responsibility for this new disorder has to be borne by the countries, including Australia, who invaded and destroyed the old order, obviously a tyrannical order, but it was.. the evidence now is that disorder is more deadly than tyranny?

JULIE BISHOP: Well the situation in Syria would be a counter to that argument. There's a brutal dictator in Syria in charge of the country and the conflict there is appalling.

MARIUS BENSON: But there are many differences, there was the particular fact that Iraq became a Western responsibility very directly when the invasion took place 10 years ago, or 11 years ago.

JULIE BISHOP: The United States undertook extensive consultations with the Iraqi Government about a continuing military presence beyond 2011 and the Iraqi Government at that time did not agree to a continuing US military presence and that was their sovereign right to make that decision. It was made and the US pulled out in 2011.

We're dealing with the reality of the situation today and that's why I'm assessing the security of our staff there, urging Australians to leave the country and focussing on the humanitarian needs. We understand that about 500,000 people have left the cities in the North. We understand that there are about 300,000 displaced people as a result of earlier conflicts in Anbar Provence and over 200,000 refugees are estimated to have come in from Syria where the fighting continues.

It's a very volatile situation, not only for Iraq and Syria, but for the Middle East. Of course this has an impact on global security because of the number of people who are being attracted to the conflict in Syria, and I understand in Iraq, and becoming radicalised and fighting with terrorist groups - so it has global ramifications.

MARIUS BENSON: What information do you have about Australians fighting in Iraq?

JULIE BISHOP: We certainly have information about Australians fighting in Syria and I point out that it is against Australian law for any Australian citizen, including a dual citizen, to take part in the conflict in Syria. It's also an offence for any Australian to work with or support a terrorist entity and ISIS has been listed as a terrorist organisation, not only in Australia, but by the United Nations.

I don't have any specific information about Australian citizens fighting with ISIS but if they are, they are putting themselves in mortal danger and if they were able to come back to Australia they would be in breach of Australian law.

MARIUS BENSON: Julie Bishop, thank you very much.

JULIE BISHOP: My pleasure.

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