Why the silence over Iraqi deal?
As the Gallipoli commemorations draw near, so does the departure date of the 143 New Zealand troops being sent to Iraq.
Over the past year, New Zealand’s position has shifted from not sending troops at all to where some will play a training role alongside 300 Australians based at Camp Taji, near Baghdad.
Almost as an aside, the Key Government has conceded under questioning that our troops might also be engaged in military planning and with the calling in of air strikes.
This widening range of activities has put a question mark over the deal hammered out between New Zealand and Iraq.
Under what conditions – if any – could New Zealand soldiers be prosecuted under Iraqi law?
If our troops are engaged on a military mission, Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee has indicated that they would have full immunity and would also be able to defend themselves if attacked – but this rather begs the question as to how the two countries get to agree on what is an official military mission.
Another grey area exists over the immunity of individual soldiers if and when it comes to allegations of rape, or solo acts of violence.
The Government has refused to clarify the legal basis of our Iraq engagement.
‘‘ Why would you?’’ Brownlee said last week. ‘‘It’s an arrangement between two governments.
‘‘It relates to the activities our guys will be involved in. And as you know, there are security concerns around that.’’
For Iraq and New Zealand, this cone of silence serves a useful political purpose.
Here at home it avoids embarrassing questions about what we’re actually doing in Iraq.
As for the Iraqis, the government in Baghdad is notoriously sensitive about seeming to condone the presence of foreign troops on its soil.
If this reticence was motivated solely by concerns about the security of our troops, it would be understandable.
Our allies in Iraq – Australia, Canada and the United States – are surely equally concerned about the safety of their troops, but they have been far more forthcoming.
Last week for example, it was the Australians – and not the Key Government – who revealed that 50 New Zealand troops are already training in Australia for the co-deployment in Iraq.
In Australia it is also a matter of public record that their SAS contingent enjoys immunity while in Iraq from the fact they have been issued with diplomatic passports by the Baghdad government.
In a further example of openness, the American status of forces agreement for Iraq is published online – New Zealand First’s Ron Mark tried in vain last week to table it in the House.
Reportedly, our troops – like the Australian SAS – may well enjoy the same level of immunity as diplomats if it came to criminal actions and allegations.
Why our Government has chosen not to clarify and confirm this situation cannot help but breed suspicion that the muchtouted ‘‘ training’’ role of the 15 or so specialised trainers on this mission ( out of 143 troops being sent) is only part of the story.
For now, the Government’s stubborn reticence about the terms and conditions of our deployment in Iraq looks less like a concern for the welfare of our troops and more like an attempt to insulate itself from media scrutiny.