baghdad worse than ever, says hill

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    The Australian

    Baghdad worse than ever, says Hill
    Patrick Walters, National security editor
    December 06, 2004
    ROBERT Hill has learnt first-hand the new perils involved in visiting strife-torn Baghdad.

    Such has been the escalation of violence in the lead-up to elections due on January 30 that for the first time in four visits the Defence Minister could not make it to the centre of the Iraqi capital on Friday.

    So dangerous has the highway to and from the airport become, with daily suicide bomb attacks, he could not visit the Australian embassy or the Green Zone that contains the headquarters of the US-led coalition forces in Iraq.

    "This is the first time I've been unable to do that. It's very dangerous - a number of countries are no longer travelling along it," Senator Hill told The Australian.

    "I would have (travelled into central Baghdad) if we'd had a helicopter, but they were being used for more important tasks."

    Senator Hill's visit coincided with an upsurge of violence in Iraq that killed more than 60 people over the weekend and led senior UN official Lakhdar Brahimi to warn that holding elections would be "impossible" in the current security environment.

    Senator Hill acknowledged that Iraq's central area, including Baghdad, was in a "very difficult phase". "I would say it's more violent than on any of my previous visits," he said. "It's a more dangerous place than it's been since the downfall of Saddam's regime. The insurgency is really quite intensive and extensive."

    Instead of making the hazardous run into the city, Senator Hill travelled in an armoured convoy to the US-run Camp Victory, a short distance from Baghdad airport.

    In a day-long visit, he discussed security and counter-insurgency operations with General George Casey, the overall commander of the US-led multinational forces in Iraq, and the deputy chief of staff for strategic operations, Major General Jim Molan.

    The two officers canvassed possible future roles for Australia's military in training Iraq's security forces in the areas of logistics support and senior officer training. A 50-strong Australian army advisory team will complete its training of three Iraqi battalions early in the new year.

    Accompanied by Australia's special forces commander, Major General Mike Hindmarsh, Senator Hill also met Australian ambassador Howard Brown and Air Commodore Greg Evans, the new commander of Australian forces in the Middle East.

    Senator Hill said General Casey had told him the taking of Fallujah was a critical step in overcoming the largely Sunni-backed insurgency. But with insurgents lacking a centralised command structure, military operations would continue with a key goal being to support the counter-insurgency capabilities of the Iraqis themselves.

    "There is a view among the Sunnis and those who were part of Saddam's regime that not only have they lost, but they will continue to lose through the building of a new democratic system," Senator Hill said. "They see the January 30 national elections as a critical event."

    At a weekend conference in Bahrain, Senator Hill met US President George W. Bush's new national security adviser Stephen Hadley and his Iraqi counterpart Qassim Daud.

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