CANBERRA (AFP): Australia admitted for the first time on Thursday that securing an oil supply is a key factor behind its involvement in the US-led war in Iraq.
Defence Minister Brendan Nelson said a review of Australia's defence strategy to be released Thursday concluded that maintaining “resource security” in the Middle East was a priority.
“The defence update we're releasing today sets out many priorities for Australia's defence and security, and resource security is one of them,” Nelson told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
“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 were a premature withdrawal from Iraq,” he said.
Australia joined the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and Prime Minister John Howard remains a strong supporter of Washington's military campaign in the country, including the current deployment of about 1,575 soldiers.
Nelson said Australia's main reasons for remaining in Iraq were to prevent al-Qaeda-driven violence between the Sunni and Shia populations and to help key ally the United States combat terrorism and stabilise the region.
But he said safeguarding oil supplies was an important part of bringing stability.
“For all of those reasons, one of which is energy security, it's extremely important that Australia take the view that it's in our interests, our security interests, to make sure that we leave the Middle East, and leave Iraq in particular, in a position of sustainable security,” he said.
Nelson said Australia's troops would remain in Iraq for as long as they were needed and would not be affected by elections here later this year, when Howard's conservative government will seek a fifth term in office.
“We have made a conscious decision that it's the conditions on the ground that will determine how long we stay in Iraq, not the political conditions in Australia,” he said.
The centre-left opposition Labor Party, which wants to withdraw Australia's troops from Iraq, said the government's admission that the conflict was linked to oil contradicted its statements before the 2003 invasion.
“When Mr Howard was asked back in 2003 whether this war had anything to do with oil, Mr Howard said in no way did it have anything to do with oil,” Labor leader Kevin Rudd told reporters.
“This government simply makes it up as it goes along on Iraq.”
Howard will release the biennial defence review, defining national defence policy, later Thursday.
Howard denied the war was linked to oil in an interview on February 2003, on the eve of the invasion.
“It's about the danger to Australia if countries like Iraq continue to have chemical and biological weapons, and those weapons get into the hands of international terrorists — that fundamentally is what this is about,” he said at the time.