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More Australian troops to Iraq sharpens opposition to this war

Pip Hinman in Sydney


John Howard's decision to send 450 more cavalry, infantry and training troops to southern Iraq in the face of majority opposition here, adds political urgency to going all out in the remaining few weeks to build the March 18-20 "Troops out" global protests.

Howard's reasons for sending more troops ("help reconstruct Iraq", "support democracy" etc) are aimed at those who didn't support the war but are in two minds about what should happen now. However, the polls and Australian Labor Party leader Kim Beazley's less than enthusiastic response suggests that there is widespread opposition to this move.

A Channel Ten telephone poll showed 71% opposed to the extra troop commitment, the same results as other polls taken over the last few days. In addition, the military head of the Australian intervention during the Vietnam War, Major-General (retired) Alan Stretton, warned that Iraq is shaping up as another Vietnam, and said that Japan should pay for Australia to protect its troops.

Whether this translates into action by the ALP remains to be seen. Beazley's recent statement about which Australian troops should stay and which should leave is having it both ways.

"We say the sailors and airmen stay. We say in Iraq itself the soldiers who are protecting our diplomats - they should stay," said Beazley on February 23. "We say that the soldiers who are currently doing logistics, planning and the like for the coalition perhaps should do that for the United Nations to encourage them to stay and make a contribution. The rest, the Government ought to be pulling out."

Beazley also said that the government should be focusing on the South East Asian region rather than Iraq.

We know that what Socialist Alliance does in the next few weeks to harness support for the March protests will be critical.

The more liberal-minded section of the mass anti-war movement of 2003 - the largest section - has taken a back seat largely because it became demoralised that the government went to war after the huge protests in February of that year. The other reason is that the organising structures of the anti-war movement are still too narrow given that the traditional structures - the trade unions and churches
- haven't been prepared to take part. Given this, the mood that protests don't and cannot have a real impact on governmental decisions becomes self-fulfilling.

The fact that the Greens are the only parliamentary party to maintain the call for all Australian troops to come home, the task of building the anti-war movement has come down to the far left together with some Greens in some cities and some very active left independents.

There is no easy way around this - and we feel it at a stark level inside anti-war coalitions and local peace groups in which Socialist Alliance member are playing critical organising roles.

But we mustn't lose sight of the fact that all the polls still show majority opposition to the war, to the February 22 troop announcement. The Howard government has been hugely discredited over its lies about the reasons for going to war, about its knowledge of the torture of prisoners of war, and the treatment meted out to Mamdouh Habib (and David Hicks).

This mass dissent can and does spur on new generations to get active. In Sydney a new group - Students against War - held a successful action outside ANZ bank (one of the war profiteers) during the campus holidays, and is now preparing for a large public meeting with John Pilger on March 10 at Sydney University. In other cities too young people are again starting to organise - their aim against the war profiteers.

However, reports from some cities indicate that Socialist Alliance members have had to struggle to get the main anti-war coalitions to agree to even mark the second anniversary of the invasion.

In Adelaide, NoWar was finally persuaded to call a protest after some young activists from the Student Activist Alliance and Resistance went to a meeting and made their case. The result will be a protest outside defence minister Robert Hill and foreign minister Alexander Downer's office in central Adelaide on March 20.

In Melbourne, the newly-formed Stop the War Coalition is organising the rally and march on March 18, at which the featured speakers will be Andrew Wilke (Greens, ex Office of National Assessments) and Kevin Bracken from Maritime Union of Australia. The protest will march past a couple of war profiteers in the city. The Victorian Peace Network, which is currently having discussions about its role in the anti-war movement, has been approached by the StWC to provide a speaker.

Canberra ACTNOW is organising a protest for March 19, and is approaching a range of speakers including a Uniting Church minister, one of the senior bureaucrats who have spoken the truth about the torture, the Greens and others.

Darwin NoWar is supporting a Church-based action on March 18, at which they will have a display board, an information stall and plant crosses in Raintree Park. They have also called a rally and speak-out for March 20. But with the 450 troops largely leaving from Darwin in 10 weeks they will get another opportunity to protest.

Perth NoWar have had their hands full with a state election campaign, and are planning to use polling day on February 26 to promote the March 20 action. The protest has been timed to fit into the lunch break of the Perth Social Forum being held that day in Fremantle. Andrew Wilkie from the Greens will be the keynote speaker.

A couple of successful actions initiated by Resistance outside an ANZ bank in Perth at which police and Tactical Response Group heavyhandiness was witnessed by passers-by, including journalists, has also helped raise the profile of the protest.

Perth NoWar is also planning to host Terry Hicks in April, and the WA Peace Network is hosting Tariq Ali in May. NoWar is also talking to WAPN about being involved in a debate in March/April about the aftermath of the Iraqi election and the response of the peace movement.

The Hobart Peace Coalition has been debating the call for the troops to come out, and at its last meeting a majority voted against making it. (This discussion took place before the government's announcement.) Agreed was the theme: "Two years too many", but SA members have drafted up and will be arguing for the addition of "End the occupation, troops out now".

The Newcastle NoWar Collective will hold a rally on M20 starting in Wheeler Place. They are planning a "scumbag tour" down Hunter Street where a number of war profiteers have their offices including ANZ and Monsanto. Nico Leka says they are planning to begin the rally recalling the disgraceful episodes in Iraq, including details that "they" would rather we forget such as the siege of Najaf, the abuse at Abu Ghraib, and the chemical weapons used on Fallujah. At the rally's end, in Pacific Park, they will analyse what the shame elections and current trends in US foreign policy mean.

In Sydney, the Stop the War Coalition tried to negotiate with the Sydney Peace and Justice Coalition about organising a joint event, knowing that they would want to organise an event for Palm Sunday. After an initial positive meeting, SPJC decided against it, and unfortunately will be organising a separate event in the western suburbs of Sydney. This will make it a harder to get support from unions, although SA members in the National Tertiary Education Union at the University of NSW recently successfully put a motion supporting M20 and giving StWC $200.

Even with keynote speakers such as John Pilger building for M20 has been slow to get going. However, Howard's announcement is sure to speed things up, especially if we can find ways of capitalising on the opposition to the extra troops. Wollongong NoWar will organise a couple of speak-out stalls to promote the Sydney rally at Hyde Park, and organise for activists to come up together in a "peace carriage".

In Sydney, local peace groups, some of which are being revived by SA members, are doing their bit to revitalise the networks and organise anti-war supporters to do a little more.

The SA national office is planning to issue a new colour leaflet in time for the M18-20 protests, which will highlight SA's opposition to the war, our involvement in the movement, as well as other critical issues facing progressives under a fourth-term Howard government.

Further reading: Howard under fire for 'duping' voters in The Australian and Statement from the ALP


Pip Hinman is a central activist in the Sydney Stop The War Coalition and a national convenor of the Socialist Alliance’s anti-war working group. This article was written for the Socialist Alliance national newsletter, Socialist Campaigner.


February 2005


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