The War in Iraq – March 2003

P04102.008

Three Special Air Service Regiment (SAS) long-range patrol vehicles and their crews are enveloped in a cloud of dust as the Defence Minister Robert Hill’s RAAF C-130 Hercules aircraft leaves the Al Asad airbase in western Iraq. During his time in Iraq, Senator Hill, accompanied by the Chief of the Defence Force General Peter Cosgrove, visited Australian Defence Force personnel and met with key Iraqi and Coalition Provisional Authority officials. (AWM P04102.008)

At 10:16 PM (US EST) on Wednesday 19 March 2003, President George W Bush addressed the American people, and the rest of the world, from the Oval Office in the White House saying:

“My fellow citizens, at this hour, American and coalition forces are in the early stages of military operations to disarm Iraq, to free its people and to defend the world from grave danger.”

So began Operation IRAQI FREEDOM with the launch of cruise missiles into Baghdad.

Australia’s contribution to what has become known variously as the Iraq War or Gulf War II was conducted in three separate operations:

  • Operation BASTILLE – pre-deployment of forces to the Middle East, acclimatisation and in-theatre training;
  • Operation FALCONER – combat operations to disarm Iraq; and
  • Operation CATALYST – stabilisation and recovery operations.

Operation IRAQI FREEDOM, and Australia’s involvement, sprang from the global fear of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) falling into the hands of terrorist groups following the Al Qaeda attacks on New York City and Washington on September 11 2001. It served as an expression of support for our alliance with the United States. Intertwined with these strategic imperatives was Iraq’s non-compliance with United Nations (UN) Security Council Resolution 687, imposed after Operations DESERT SHIELD and DESERT STORM in 1991, requiring it to abandon any WMD programs.

The Australian Defence Force (ADF) contribution to Operations BASTILLE and FALCONER was both to enforce UN sanctions against Iraq and as support for Operation SLIPPER, the ADF contribution to the International Coalition against Terrorism stemming from the September 11 attacks in 2001. In October that year an Australian National Commander was deployed to Kuwait to oversee Australia’s contributions to both Operation SLIPPER and the ongoing UN sanctions against Iraq.

Operation SLIPPER forces included:

  • A Special Operations Task Group,
  • Two B707 refuelling aircraft,
  • Four F/A 18 Hornets based in Diego Garcia,
  • Two AP-3C Orion maritime patrol aircraft.

In June 2002 then Minister for Defence, Sen Robert Hill, authorised Defence to undertake contingency planning for operations in Iraq to address the clearest lesson from the September 11 attacks, ‘…to act swiftly and firmly before threats become attacks…’

Pre-deployment commenced on 23 January 2003 with the departure of HMAS Kanimbla from Sydney. By 25 February approximately 2,000 ADF personnel were in the Middle East in support of either Operation SLIPPER or BASTILLE. HMA Ships Anzac and Darwin continued their ongoing operations in the Gulf with additional forces including Army Air Defence and landing craft detachments attached to HMAS Kanimbla, a Navy Clearance Diving Team, an additional Special Forces Task Group, an F/A 18 Hornet fighter detachment, and a C-130 Hercules transport aircraft detachment deployed in support of Operation BASTILLE.

Following consultations with coalition partner leaders on 18 March 2003, President Bush issued an ultimatum to Iraq’s leader, President Saddam Hussein and his sons, to leave Iraq or risk military action. Australia’s Prime Minister John Howard advised Parliament on the same day that he had authorised the ADF to participate in military operations should they become necessary. At this point the ADF transitioned from Operation BASTILLE to Operation FALCONER.

It is now history that Saddam Hussein rejected President Bush’s ultimatum to leave Iraq.

While Australian forces conducted operations within the context of the broader coalition operational plan, they retained their distinct identity as Australian elements under Australian command of Chief of Defence Force, General Peter Cosgrove. In-theatre command was exercised through the Australian National Commander who effectively retained a ‘red card’ option should operations or targeting be considered not in Australia’s national interests or considered to not be in accordance with Australia’s Rules of Engagement.

ADF units conducted operations in widely dispersed areas across Iraq and the northern Persian Gulf with Special Forces in the Western Desert area of Iraq to limit Iraq’s freedom of action, the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) operating throughout the North Persian Gulf and units allotted to the Air component taking part in strike and support operations.

In the 48 hours leading up to the commencement of land operations Australian boarding parties in the Persian Gulf conducted operations to clear more than 100 Iraqi merchant vessels. These vessels were seeking to leave Iraq’s only deep water port, Umm Qasr, through a narrow and shallow stretch of water named Khawr abd Allah. The boarding parties then focussed their efforts on support for the land campaign and clearing maritime approaches and ports.

On 20 March the RAN was involved in two significant operations. HMAS Anzac was called to provide naval gunfire support in support of UK Royal Marine operations on the Al Faw peninsula. This was the first occasion since the Vietnam War that a RAN ship engaged in naval gunfire support operations. Over the next three days HMAS Anzac was called on for fire support on seven occasions. During one mission, Anzac’s first rounds fell so close to an Iraqi position that the soldiers surrendered immediately. At the same time boarding parties from HMAS Kanimbla discovered 86 sea mines during a search of a barge and three tugs that averted potentially severe damage being inflicted on coalition and merchant vessels and inhibiting the delivery of much needed humanitarian aid.

Australian Special Forces entered western Iraq by helicopter and road and, once deployed, were the closest Coalition ground forces to Baghdad in the early stages of the war. Their effectiveness was demonstrated by the capture and destruction of a well defended Iraqi radio relay facility on the second night of the land campaign. Destruction of the facility directly impacted the command and control capabilities of the Iraqi Defence Forces and sent a strong message about the effectiveness of Coalition forces and their proximity to the capital. By the end of the first week of ground operations the Special Forces Task Group had established such dominance in their area of operations that the Iraqi’s effectively ceased any counter-special forces operations and by the end of March Australia had agreed to a Coalition request to expand their area to include the Al Asad Airbase, 200km west of Baghdad. In capturing the Airbase, Special Forces soldiers also captured more than 50 MiG jets and almost 8 million kilograms of explosives. They then set about repairing the runway for use by Coalition aircraft with the first to arrive being an Australian C-130 from 36 Squadron.

14 F/A 18 Hornets from 75 Squadron were involved in Operation FALCONER. Initially used to protect high value Coalition aircraft such as air-to-air refuellers and intelligence collection aircraft, the Hornets were also used to strike ground targets and on 20 March 2003 the first bomb dropped by a RAAF aircraft since the Vietnam War was released. On 23 March the RAAF conducted its first deliberately planned strike mission against a Republican Guard target, the first of four such planned attacks conducted by Australian aircraft. These missions were followed by regular close air support tasks and air interdiction sorties against tactical Iraqi forces, as well as support for search and rescue missions.

Major combat operations in Iraq formally concluded on 1 May 2003 and the ADF transitioned to Operation CATALYST that began on 16 July 2003. Operation CATALYST was a whole-of-government operation to assist Iraq’s rehabilitation that continued until July 2009. Operation CATALYST included the deployment of Australian service personnel on an individual basis to fill roles with the Strategic and Operational level Headquarters of the Multi-National Force – Iraq, training appointments within the Multi-National Security Transition Command – Iraq (MNSTC-I),  as well as contingents deployed as Security Detachment personnel for the Australian Embassy, Baghdad, and conducting operations in Al Muthanna Province.

The Iraq War was Australia’s first real foray into combat since the Vietnam War. It tested our command and control procedures, logistic support, and strategic and operational planning. While these elements often resulted in lessons having to be learned, our tactical abilities were proven to be more than a match for the enemy and were shown to be at the very least, the equal of our Coalition partners.

While tragically one soldier died from an accidental gunshot and an Australian soldier serving with the British air force died when his transport plane crashed, no Australian personnel were killed-in-action during the Iraq campaign. This in itself is testament to the skills, dedication and training of all involved.