29 July The Australian book extract - Secrets of the Alliance by Greg Sheridan.

... Downer said Australia would support the US but he wanted to know what the US planned for "post-Saddam". The Iraqi opposition, Downer pointed out, was very divided. The secretary of state didn't answer the point directly but was more concerned to stress the pressure the US would put Saddam Hussein under. The US was working the Iraqi opposition groups and planning for the future, the secretary of state said, but did not offer any details. Finally the secretary stressed that the US was going to "do it big and do it right". The US would be "screamed at" by the international community and would welcome Australia's support...

The point in recounting this conversation is to demonstrate what a complex, difficult problem Iraq was for US governments through the 1990s, and to demonstrate two subsidiary points of the highest importance. It was the Clinton administration, not presumably in thrall to neoconservatives, that changed US policy to one seeking regime change in Baghdad. And everyone across the Clinton administration, and across the international intelligence communities, believed that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction.

Investigations for this book showed that Australia made repeated efforts to get the Americans to focus on post-conflict planning in a more coherent way, but were unsuccessful. Indeed, the conversation quoted between Downer and Albright prefigures many conversations Australians would have with US officials in 2002 and 2003. As late as February 25, 2003, a month before the war began, Downer met with the then US secretary of state, Colin Powell, at the Hyatt Hotel in Seoul, South Korea. Both men had a raft of officials and ambassadors with them. The conversation confirms that while Australia had pre-positioned troops and was always overwhelmingly likely to go with the Americans, it had not made a formal, final decision to join the operation. Downer told Powell that when the time came it was important for Bush to ring Howard and request a contribution to the military effort. Then the Australian cabinet would make a formal decision.

But Downer wanted to talk about phase four - the post-bellum period, the peacekeeping and nation-building phase about which Americans were so uncomfortable. Downer urged Powell to maximise the role of the UN. Downer understood that this was sensitive and that the US inter-agency process was in full swing on it, but a UN role would help answer the concerns of countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia. Malaysia's leader, Dr Mahathir, was a "write-off", Downer said, and best ignored.

Powell said Mahathir was "so far out on the edge, he has made himself irrelevant". Powell even thought that if Mahathir was going to be bad, it was good that he was being as bad as he was.

Downer told Powell that Indonesia was a more serious country. Downer argued that the more the UN was involved, the more many countries would embrace the new order in Iraq. Otherwise it would be a "hard sell" internationally.

Downer knew Britain was already putting this position to the US. Downer cited the case of East Timor, where the UN had been effective.

Powell said General Tommy Franks would be in command in Iraq for a short while. (As it turned out Franks left almost as soon as the conventional fighting was over.) Powell admitted the debate inside the US administration was between those who wanted to hang on to the administration of Iraq and those who wanted to internationalise it. In a badly mistaken judgment, Powell thought those who were arguing for internationalisation were winning. But the end point was clear: Washington did not want a US general commanding a Muslim nation, Powell said.

The US Army itself, he was sure, did not want to hang around Iraq. Powell didn't go so much for the East Timor comparison, pointing out that Iraq was a bit more complicated than East Timor.

He also said it was important that the US not just let the nation fly to pieces.

This was a significant conversation. It showed Downer in a co-ordinated push with Britain to get a particular outcome - the greatest UN involvement possible in post-war Iraq.

It showed Downer's concern with the post-conflict planning. It showed the confusion and indecision in the Bush administration regarding the post-conflict phase, with Powell believing wrongly that the UN would be heavily involved early, that Franks would run Iraq for a short while and that the US would not be in post-war Iraq forlong.

The Howard Government's view of post-war planning and policy was closer to the State Department's than to the Pentagon's, and it didn't prevail. It has to be judged that although Australia tried hard it was not successful here, either before the war or during the occupation.

One area where it was much more successful was in its influence on coalition military policy during the conventional combat phase. The Australian forces performed magnificently. The Australian special forces, predominately the SAS regiment, were among the first coalition forces to enter Iraq, and it fought the first significant engagement. The regiment's weaponry, speed, precision and mobility saw it sweep across the western desert of Iraq, identifying targets for US air power, knocking out Iraqi installations, making sure no Scuds could be fired into Israel and destroying Saddam's command and control capabilities in the area. One of its main accomplishments was taking the huge Al-Asad airbase, where 57 Soviet-built MIG aircraft were discovered. Intelligence had indicated there would be just two such aircraft at the base. The SAS also found a great deal of weapons of mass destruction paraphernalia, although, of course, no actual WMDs...

Bush thanked Australia for the work of the SAS in the western desert. The decision announced in the US Quadrennial Defence Review, published in February 2006, to vastly increase the US special forces capability almost certainly owes something to the capability of the Australians, for whom the Americans came to have the very highest regard.

In terms of the alliance, Iraq drew the Australian and US militaries very much closer together.

However, it was not just the SAS: Australia played a crucial role in the coalition's targeting policy. This was done through then Brigadier (later General) Maurie McNarn, who was the overall Australian force commander in the Iraq operation.

Critics sometimes ask whether the Australian Public Service ever produced a full-scale evaluation of what the Iraq operation would mean for Australia's national interests. The answer is the Australian Defence Force did just that, in part so it could propose operations and deployments, including a timeline and exit strategy, which would serve the national interest. It hardly need be said that this did not usurp the role of government, it merely provided the fullest and most coherent range of options to government...

But in some ways it was the acts of restraint where Australia made the biggest contribution to the Americans. There was a list of individuals the coalition partners designated as legitimate targets in their own right before the war began. The US had initially proposed a bigger list, but Britain and Australia had whittled it down. It speaks well to the credit of the US military that they stuck by coalition agreements, including the red card.

Every night at headquarters in Qatar the most senior commanders would gather. They would hold a secure video teleconference with all the other commanders in the different headquarters and of the different services (air force, navy etc). Each commander participating would have some staff back-up with him. At this conference they would go through the list of targets nominated for the next day.

McNarn had, among others, Australian intelligence officers and military lawyers with him. An independent intelligence assessment capacity was essential, and without the military lawyers he could hardly have done his job at all.

On a number of occasions McNarn played his red card. The first time he did it, it was a great shock to the Americans he was dealing with. But it also liberated some participating Americans who may have been uneasy about a particular target but did not themselves possess the red card power and may even have been cautious about speaking up against a plan devised by a fellow commander, or perhaps even someone more senior to them...