In the line of fire

The role New Zealand soldiers are playing in Iraq is not the one the government has sold to the country, says NICKY HAGER.

MANY NEW ZEALANDERS were relieved when their country stayed out of the Iraq war and the messy occupation that followed. Later, they supported the decision to provide humanitarian assistance to the Iraqi people, accepting government assurances that New Zealand’s military engineers would play only an impartial, “reconstruction and humanitarian” role. They would not, the government said, be part of the US-British military occupation. But leaked papers from New Zealand and Britain reveal that a substantial proportion of the New Zealand contribution has been directly supporting the occupation and that the New Zealand soldiers are embedded as coalition personnel in the occupation forces.

Their secret “rules of engagement”_the government approved instructions on what they can and cannot do under the control of their British commanders_are all about helping the occupying powers to maintain their control over the Iraq territory.

The 61 New Zealand engineers_codenamed Task Group Rake_arrived in Iraq on September 17 and 29 and began operations in October. They immediately transferred under the command of 35 engineer regiment_part of the British-led multi-national division (south east) occupation force. Most live in a camp called Fortress Lines, which was the Iraqi naval academy in Basra.

The official line is the New Zealanders are remaining at arms-length from the military occupation, just assisting in tasks to help the Iraqi people. However, the defence force operations order, dated September 5, states “TG RAKE will be embedded within a UK engineer unit for both daily operational control and logistical sustainment”. A British military website says the “Kiwi troop . . . is living and working alongside their counterparts in every respect”.

First, there are 16 logistics personnel “dispersed within the UK engineer regiment”. Six electrical and mechanical engineers are fully integrated into the regiment’s fitter section where, as publicly admitted on the UK regimental website, they are servicing and repairing British military equipment. A New Zealand ammunition technician is posted within the British 49th bomb disposal squadron. A navy engineer has joined the British combat support boat crew. They support whatever British military operations are occurring.

Then there are four staff officers, two at the main coalition HQ at Basra airport and two at the regimental HQ at Shaibah. One is a “civil-military co-operation” post, liaising with NGOs, but the rest are general engineering roles. Again a substantial part of their work is British occupation duties.

A confidential New Zealand defence memo explains these appointments had more than altruistic motives. “Do not underestimate how important filling the staff officer positions is,” a senior officer wrote. “It will not only give us a say in how our people are employed, it will give us high visibility on the ground and earn us huge gratitude from the Brits who are very strapped for staff officers.”

The 15 army field engineers are supposed to be dedicated to reconstruction work but again the reality is different. Their confidential instructions list restoring water and electricity supplies, repairing bridges and refurbishing schools and police stations. However, a substantial part of their time has gone to the final item on this list: “Local security tasks and maintenance of own force instrastructure”.

The engineers arrived as resistance to the occupation was intensifying around Basra, so the British commanders ordered the engineers under their control to give priority to defending British military sites. Our engineers have spent much of their time erecting defensive walls, building road barriers and otherwise fortifying first their own then the various other British military sites dotted around Basra. Much hard effort has gone into assembling hescos, wire cages filled with soil and rubble to form defensive walls.

For instance, they were all involved in “Operation Moscow”, a frantic “force protection review” after the November 12 attack on the Italian Nasiryah compound. Days of urgent construction work followed. On their first day at Fortress Lines some sections were called out to build road blocks to control a riot near the port. Like all the New Zealanders, they also do guard duties.

Most military engineering is not humanitarian work but an integral part of fighting and occupation. The engineers’ parent 35th regiment, for instance, had earlier cleared transport routes and given support to the British 29th armoured engineer squadron during the invasion. Its tasks included constructing a “15,000 man POW cage”.

Even the 12-person trades section (carpenters, etc) has had to spend time on security work. The rest of the 61 are HQ, communications and support staff. Added up, a large part of the total New Zealand effort has been helping maintain the military occupation.

The New Zealand senior national officer in Iraq was given discretion to decline any instructions from the British that did not fit New Zealand government-approved roles. But since these roles include “local security tasks” and maintenance of the British military infrastructure, this has not stopped the extensive occupation-oriented activities.

Well before the deployment, defence got legal advice on what activities would and wouldn’t count as being part of the US-led occupying force. The answer was humanitarian assistance was fine but security duties helping the US and British forces maintain control of the territory would effectively make our soldiers part of the occupying powers. The TG RAKE engineers have crossed that line. Reassurances that New Zealand would somehow work with the British but not support the occupation have proved hollow.

Could they have done it another way? Or does providing humanitarian assistance in a war-zone inevitably require working with the militaries involved? The answer is simple. Most reconstruction and humanitarian work in Iraq, for instance repairing water supplies, is being done by a collection of UN agencies, aid agencies and large US corporations with reconstruction contracts. There was an international donor conference in Madrid in October to co-ordinate this assistance. If New Zealand had simply given the $15 million cost of the engineers or given the engineers themselves to the agencies specialising in this work, far more would have been achieved to help Iraqi people.

In contrast, doing reconstruction within the occupying forces means you get caught up in their agendas. The good deeds are inevitably part of strategies to stabilise the military successes. US military commander General John Abizaid was explicit about this when he appeared before a congressional committee on September 24 requesting Iraq reconstruction funding. “There is no strictly military solution to the problems we face,” he said. “It requires that we move together on the political front, the economic front, on the reconstruction front in a manner that is synchronised and co-ordinated. If we don’t do that, I do not believe we can be successful.”

You might imagine that New Zealand engineers doing reconstruction work would use their guns only to protect themselves. That’s what the government said. Again, the reality is different.

The special orders guiding when soldiers can shoot to kill are called “rules of engagement” (ROE). The secret ROE for the New Zealand engineers approved on September 18 state that the engineers can use “up to and including deadly force” for purposes including:z To defend themselves and other coalition personnel,z To protect designated persons, and z To protect property that has been declared designated property.

So our government has approved the engineers killing people to protect the coalition forces_which means fighting on the side of the occupation forces in any conflict_but also to protect “designated” people and property. What are these? The memorandum of understanding between the British forces and coalition participants (including New Zealand) of July 8, 2003, says the British force commander decides what are designated property and persons and that the primary concern is “force protection”.

Documents state our engineers can use deadly force to protect all British military property, including preventing the “taking possession or destruction” of coalition property and defending “against intrusion into military restricted areas or other areas designated by an authorised commander”. They can also shoot people attempting to damage, remove or destroy designated property such as power lines or police stations; and anyone who tries to board, seize or damage a coalition aircraft, vehicle or vessel.

The designated people include “third country” civilian workers_such as the US government reconstruction contractors at Bechtel Camp at Basra airport_and police and military forces of the US-appointed interim Iraqi administration.

This is moving far beyond reconstruction and humanitarian work. The government also approved rules of engagement allowing the engineers to “detain persons where it is necessary for force protection or where it is incidental to carrying out their authorised tasks” and to transfer these prisoners “to the UK military authorities as soon as possible”. They are allowed to search people and vehicles, seize vehicles and property and use riot control gear to control detainees and “for the conduct of public order control”. The documents routinely describe the New Zealanders as “coalition personnel”.

The government says the basis of New Zealand’s Iraq deployment is UN Security Council resolution 1483, that called on UN member states to “help meet the humanitarian and other needs of the Iraqi people by providing food, medical supplies and resources necessary for reconstruction and rehabilitation of Iraq’s economic infrastructure”.

The rules of engagement, which were personally approved by the prime minister, obviously go well beyond that. They are all about helping the occupying powers maintain control_the inevitable outcome of deciding to place our soldiers with the Brits.

Helen Clark was apparently uncomfortable about this and asked officials to insert phrases in the NZ-US/British agreements before they were finalised in September, saying New Zealand wasn’t supporting the occupation. But the practical arrangements are not consistent with the words.

The obvious way to “help meet the humanitarian and other needs of the Iraqi people” was to provide humanitarian assistance through UN agencies, as our army mine-clearing staff do in Iraq through the UN Mine Action Service. But the government really wanted to be there, with the US-UK forces, and for that UN contributions would not do. Thus it was necessary to fit our soldiers’ instructions to what the British commanders would expect of them.

MP Ron Mark of parliament’s foreign affairs, defence and trade select committee asked defence to provide the committee with copies of the ROE for the Iraq deployment. Defence refused to provide them but assured the committee that they are based purely on “the concept of self-defence and the defence of other persons it is their duty to protect”.

The reason all this matters_besides a stated government policy of not supporting an illegal war and occupation_is this means New Zealand is being seen taking sides in Iraq. Literally seen, by the people opposed to the occupying forces. The result is that New Zealand soldiers are targets for everyone resisting the occupation forces. They are in serious danger.

When the prime minister first spoke of sending army engineers to Iraq, in February 2003, it was before the war had began and_crucially_before the US-led forces had even considered the possibility of ongoing guerrilla resistance. At that stage the US assumed it would have a conventional military victory and be greeted by cheering “liberated” Iraqis.

By June this year, when our government first approved the deployment, the reality of the guerrilla war was very clear. Since then there have been various stages_as the death toll increased_when the government could have reconsidered and postponed the deployment. But they pushed ahead.

The directorate of defence intelligence and security produced a classified military threat assessment on Iraq on July 22 that said the “organised threat groups opposed to foreign military forces [in southern Iraq] are . . . smaller in number and have lesser presence than in central Iraq”. But it still rated the risk of New Zealand fatalities as high. “The overall security situation in Iraq continues to be uncertain,” it warned, and the threat level “could rise without warning”. Ministers were informed of this threat assessment in early August in a cabinet paper finalising the deployment.

On August 9 the first New Zealand casualty occurred, in Basra where the engineers were headed, just two days before the announcement of their deployment. One of the two army mine clearers in Iraq, Major Stephen Pantling, received bruising, minor lacerations and abrasions at a time of riots and clashes with coalition forces in Basra. No announcement was made of his injuries.

On August 20, the other mine-clearing officer, Major Todd Hart, was badly injured. This was the huge bomb attack on the UN headquarters in Baghdad, in which 20 people died and 100 were injured. Hart was airlifted to a hospital in Kuwait and later home to New Zealand.

Since then the attacks on coalition forces have got progressively worse. November was the deadliest month since the war ended, with more than 100 coalition troops dead. The death toll included seven Spanish, two Japanese, two South Koreans and 18 Italians, working their way through the coalition nations. The first New Zealand engineer injured in Iraq, Hayden Gardner, was very lucky to survive a roadside bomb.

The New Zealand contingent lives in tents among several hundred British troops at Fortress Lines. They wear almost identical uniforms, use the same US coalition communications networks and receive the same top secret US-UK intelligence summaries_hardly the signs of an impartial nation. When not occupied with security duties, the engineers must travel out in body armour and kevlar helmets, often with a British military escort, to do their work. They look and act like and in fact are coalition personnel. They are a relatively easy target.

Why does the government seem determined to continue this operation when the risks are so high? The answer cannot be humanitarian concerns. New Zealand’s engineers are a very small addition to the UN agencies and US contractors involved with tasks like water supplies in Basra. We aren’t sending army teams to numerous other countries with urgent water and infrastructure problems.

The real reason appears to be political. There is a pattern. In the last two years, New Zealand has had frigates operating out of Bahrain, Orions flying out of the United Arab Emirates, Hercules aircraft based in Kyrgyzstan and SAS, intelligence officers, stabilisation forces and military trainers in Afghanistan. The government has sent more troops overseas to US-led operations in two years than all the governments since Vietnam combined. A confidential defence paper boasted that “per capita, New Zealand is one of the largest contributors to Operation Enduring Freedom”. As John Armstrong of the NZ Herald summed it up, a more apt name when the Iraq deployment is added is “Operation Impress the United States”.

If dead New Zealanders are flown home from Iraq in the next few months there will be shock, public justifications about vital humanitarian work and talk of not backing down to the terrorists. But now, before anyone has died, it is worth checking whether the cause is really worth it.