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A newly declassified report obtained by Fairfax Media reveals Australia’s role in the 2003 invasion of Iraq was undertaken solely to enhance our alliance with the US. David Wroe investigates.

On the night of April 12, 2003, Australia’s military commander in the Middle East, Brigadier Maurie McNarn, was woken by a phone call telling him that a RAAF Hercules would soon fly into Baghdad airport to deliver medical supplies for the Iraqi capital’s looted hospitals.

The caller was his boss, then Chief of the Defence Force General Peter Cosgrove. Nevertheless, McNarn protested, saying the airport was not secure and there was no safe way to distribute the supplies to 40 hospitals across the crumbling capital. Cosgrove, now Sir Peter, the nation’s Governor-General, told him to make it happen. It was being announced to the press in 30 minutes.

Operation Baghdad Assist went ahead and became a media triumph for then prime minister John Howard and Sir Peter amid a deeply unpopular war. The Hercules, carrying three journalists and 13 commandos to provide protection, was the first Australian plane to land in Baghdad after the invasion a month earlier.

But the medical supplies never made it out of the airport. They rotted. A second planeload was diverted to the city of Nasiriyah, whose hospitals were already relatively well stocked. McNarn would go on to dismiss the whole thing as a “photo opportunity”. Special forces commander Lieutenant-Colonel Rick Burr, who learned of the operation on CNN, was equally upset, writing in his diary that the operation made “a mockery of our approach” …

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