Book reinforces Green criticism of NZ deployments to Gulf and Basra

Nicky Hager’s Other People’s Wars, shows that New Zealand was more involved in the Iraq war than most people think. The book’s reinforces the points I was making at the time, that our Orion and frigate in the Gulf, and our army engineers in Basra, were actually assisting the US/UK war effort.

Our frigate Te Kaha was in the Gulf supposedly to catch terrorists, but unsurprisingly none were ever sighted. Their more essential role was to escort American transport ships moving troops and equipment into Gulf to attack Iraq. On 25 February 2003, just before the war began, I asked Defence Minister Phil Goff in the House about “the huge American navy transport ship” that Navy Today showed Te Kaha escorting through the Straits of Hormuz. I asked whether he thought “that this ship was not carrying war materials to be used against Iraq?” Mr Goff replied that they did “not differentiate between legal vessels in terms of their need for protection against terrorist attack.” The ship in the photograph was the USNS Watkins, reported elsewhere to be carrying an armoured battalion task force, including dozens of tanks. The instructions regarding which vessels Te Kaha was to escort were ultimately determined by the US command. The Orion that New Zealand sent to the Gulf in May 2003 was similarly tasked by a US commander.

The Clark government’s cover story for the 61 New Zealand army engineers sent into Basra (Iraq) in September 2003 was also faulty. Supposedly they were there doing civilian reconstruction work, but I noticed in Navy Today that they were also repairing rigid radar and combat support boats for the British unit within which the Kiwis were embedded. I asked Deputy Prime Minister Michael Cullen about this in the House, and got the rather alarming and confused reply that “if they are being used in patrol, it may well be that this is consistent with the Government’s own commitment to Operation Enduring Freedom.” This was an alarming response because the British were at that time battling an insurgency in southern Iraq, and the media was full of the torture being committed by British soldier. It was also a confusing response because Operation Enduring Freedom is an operation in Afghanistan, not Iraq. Navy Today also said the Kiwi engineers helped the British construct roadblocks when there was “rioting” down at the port. They were also doing logistics for the UK combat unit. I asked Defence Minister Mark Burton about this but he dodged the questions and waffled on about the engineers’ humanitarian role.

With additional documentation, Hager shows how these Kiwi missions were driven by a Foreign Affairs ministry and Defence Force desire to stay sweet with the Americans by demonstrating some support for their war effort.

Embarrassingly for the Clark government the US was in no doubt that the Kiwi army engineers were part of their occupation force. When, on 16 September 2004, I sought leave “to table the front page of the Coalition Joint Task Force Operation Iraqi Freedom website listing New Zealand as one of the coalition partners” the Labour government denied leave.