Cabinet papers from Iraq war period show Howard government saw access to Middle East oil as a key national interest

<span>John Howard meets troops in Iraq. A new tranche of 2003 cabinet papers reveal the inner workings of the US-Australia alliance.</span><span>Photograph: Robert Nyffenegger/Department of Defence/AAP</span>
John Howard meets troops in Iraq. A new tranche of 2003 cabinet papers reveal the inner workings of the US-Australia alliance.Photograph: Robert Nyffenegger/Department of Defence/AAP

Secret cabinet documents from the Iraq war period show the Howard government viewed “continued access by the developed world to Middle East oil reserves” as one of Australia’s key national interests.

The newly released papers also show the government planned to reduce troop levels just months after the US-led invasion of Iraq, but worried this would squander “the benefits” Australia’s high-profile involvement had brought to the alliance.

The then government’s public justification for joining the US-led “coalition of the willing” in 2003 was to disarm Iraq of weapons of mass destruction, although these were never found.

Related: Australia went to war in Iraq based on ‘oral reports’ to cabinet from John Howard

Critics of the war have always claimed other factors, such as Iraq’s plentiful oil supplies, must also have been at play.

A new tranche of 2003 cabinet papers published by the National Archives of Australia on Thursday do not contain any so-called smoking guns, but reveal the inner workings of the alliance between the US and Australia.

A cabinet submission from the then defence minister, Robert Hill, in mid-October 2003 said Australia had “a range of enduring national interests in the Middle East”.

These included “substantial economic and trade interests, the maintenance of security within the region, preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), continued access by the developed world to Middle East oil reserves, supporting the US’s role in the region, and maintaining access for possible ADF deployments”.

Cabinet was told prior to the March 2003 invasion that US objectives in Iraq were “largely compatible” but not identical to Australian interests.

While it was not an outright Australian policy goal to topple Saddam Hussein’s regime, one document circulated to cabinet ministers said the government “recognised this may be a desirable, even inevitable, outcome of military action”.

Australian ministers and officials appeared highly sensitive to how their actions would be viewed by the Bush administration, with Hill saying it would be “in Australia’s interest to maintain the benefits that our involvement in operations against Iraq has delivered to the Australia-US alliance”.

Hill told cabinet that Australia’s “firm support for the US during the Iraq crisis further strengthened our US alliance, and modestly strengthened the position of the US by adding to the level of international support for the US’s position”.

“The current ADF presence has delivered good access and some, if not always as much as we would like, influence over the policies that the US has adopted,” Hill told his colleagues in October 2003.

He said Australia’s participation in the Iraq Survey Group – which was then looking for WMD – had been “beneficial in terms of Australia’s position in the eyes of its allies” and should be extended.

But when Hill also recommended – seven months after the invasion – to prepare to reduce the overall number of ADF personnel in the Middle East from 880 to 600, he received strong pushback from several departments.

The Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM&C) said it believed “a substantial reduction in Australia’s commitment to Iraq announced before the end of 2003 might attract a critical US response detrimental to our broader alliance interests”.

The department pointed out – drily – that key objectives including “the search for weapons of mass destruction” had “not yet been achieved”.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade also warned cabinet any reduction in the level of Australia’s contribution to Iraq during this “critical phase” would “send the wrong signal” to allies.

Cabinet documents from 20 years prior are normally released on 1 January each year, but the latest release sparked controversy when it was revealed 82 cabinet records from 2003 had not been handed over to the NAA by PM&C in 2020.

A review released in late January found there was no political interference or influence by the Morrison government, but the Covid-19 pandemic had become a “catalyst for a major breakdown” in the transfer of the records.

The new documents include a letter from the then foreign minister, Alexander Downer, to John Howard on 27 February 2003 saying the current focus was “of course on a peaceful resolution in Iraq” but the government must consider “post-conflict issues in the event that military action is unavoidable”.

“You have made clear to President Bush that Australia will not be in a position to contribute to a post-conflict peacekeeping or stabilisation force,” Downer told Howard.

“There are however significant Australian commercial interests in Iraq which we would want to advance.”

Downer told Howard the US envisaged “a dominant role for itself in all sectors in post-conflict Iraq for as long as 18 months, while relegating the UN to a subsidiary role, primarily through its humanitarian agencies”.

“I doubt that the US position is sustainable and much will eventually depend on whether any US-led military action goes forward under UN cover.”

Related: Iraq war was illegal and breached UN charter, says Annan

The documents show that, two weeks before the war began, the cabinet’s national security committee was informed the US was “likely to press forward with plans to lead a coalition in enforcement action against Iraq” even if the UN security council did not pass a new resolution specifically authorising military action.

The UN’s then secretary general, Kofi Annan, later described the US-led war on Iraq as “illegal” under international law.

The full cabinet formally signed off on Australia’s participation on 18 March 2003 based on “oral reports by the prime minister”, rather than on the basis of detailed paperwork.

However, ADF personnel had been pre-deployed and the prime minister had “foreshadowed to the governor general the general direction of the steps under consideration”.

Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets of Australian cities in February 2003 – a month before the formal decision – to protest against the Iraq war.

However, a cabinet submission in October 2003 summarising lessons learned said: “Defence’s strategy for managing the media and disseminating information on ADF involvement in Iraq was validated.

“Polling revealed that the Australian community felt that they received sufficient information about ADF activities and that the ADF’s performance was seen in positive terms.”