Why NZ sent army engineers to Iraq in 2003

There has been outrage from Helen Clark, Phil Goff and Jim Anderton over a claim by a US Embassy official (in the Wikileaks documents) that:

“Senior MOD officials (strictly protect) tell us it was not until Finance Minister Michael Cullen pointed out in a subsequent Cabinet meeting that New Zealand’s absence from Iraq might cost NZ dairy conglomerate Fonterra the lucrative dairy contract it enjoyed under the United Nations Oil for Food program, that the prime minister found a face-saving compromise and sent combat engineers in a non-combat role to Basra, where they were embedded with British forces.”

A later US cable dated 22 February 2005 (not yet publicized) claims that

“Sending combat engineers to Iraq has enabled the giant New Zealand dairy exporter, Fonterra, to bid on lucrative Iraq-related contracts.”

It may be that the “senior MOD officials” got it wrong about Cullen and the Cabinet discussion. What we do know is that Defence and Foreign Affairs and Trade officials (who work closely together) would have been aware of a link between sending a military  unit to Iraq and obtaining ‘lucrative’ dairy deals. It may well have been a factor in their proposals to Ministers, even though they would probably have avoided explicit trade references in the written papers they submitted.

I believe the main driver behind our army engineers going to Basra was a wish by the Labour government not to get too far off-side with the US and Britain after it had not contributed troops to the invasion.

Sending the army engineers


compromise New Zealand’s opposition to the war. The unit was embedded in a camp of British army engineers, some of whom were directly engaged in combat. Our engineers repaired British military patrol boats

, built defensive fortifications and roadblocks for the British, as well as helping them with logistics.

So while our unit did help repair schools, it was also engaged in combat-related tasks.

It is misleading to say that the pressure for us to send a military unit came from the UN. America and Britain were strongly pressing nations like New Zealand to send forces to Iraq. They way they saw it, the more countries that had troops on the ground, the more they could justify their occupation of Iraq.

Both the Americans and British were in no doubt that New Zealand was part of their occupation coalition, Operation Iraqi Freedom,

as I pointed out in Parliament in 2004


At the time, the

Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Iraqi Freedom website

pointed out that Britain ‘has several national contingents under its command’ in Multi-National Division (South-East), including “New Zealand”.