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Smith calls time on Iraq presence

More than eight years after Australian special forces infiltrated the deserts of western Iraq at the start of what was to prove a brutal, bitter and divisive conflict, the very last diggers have withdrawn.

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That occurred on August 6 with the departure of 17 Aussie troops responsible for providing security at the Australian embassy in Baghdad.

The only reason this did not pass entirely without notice was that Defence Minister Stephen Smith mentioned it at a media conference called to outline proposed reforms to the defence organisation.

“I do think it is an important point to make for the record,” Mr Smith told reporters on Tuesday.

Mr Smith said it was no secret that Labor had opposed Australian involvement in Iraq, campaigning on that issue in the 2007 election campaign and then overseeing withdrawal of the last Australian

combat troops from the country’s south in mid-2008.

But he said it had been important for the Australian Defence Force (ADF) to continue providing security for Australian diplomats.

From 150 soldiers equipped with ASLAV armoured vehicles, the size of the force, known as SECDET (security detachment, has progressively been reduced in line with the improving security situation.

The final group of 17 troops, equipped with armoured Land Cruisers, have now handed over to contracted civilian security guards and headed home.

Mr Smith said that was essentially the norm for security of other embassies in Baghdad.

“I have made it crystal clear on any number of occasions that I have seen our involvement and the international community’s involvement in Iraq as a distraction from Afghanistan,”

BIG REFORMS TOUTED

Meanwhile, wide-ranging reforms of the defence organisation have been introduced, and will produce better results for troops in the field and better value for taxpayers, Smith says.

Unveiling proposed organisational changes, Mr Smith said defence could not produce better outcomes unless the military and civilian sides were working hand in glove.

A key change is the creation of two new senior associate secretary positions.

One will be responsible for management and coordination of personnel services and policy, defence support, and information technology – key elements of the defence reform program.

The other will be responsible for the delivery of integrated capability development, streamlining processes, and producing greater contestability of proposed equipment acquisition plans.

Mr Smith said defence was a big complex organisation and in some respects the job of reform would never be completed.

“We want to get better value for money for the Australian taxpayer,” he told reporters in Canberra.

“We want to get equipment, capability to our servicemen and servicewomen in the field on budget and on schedule. That’s our objective.”

Mr Smith said there were always risks to be managed in buying high technology defence equipment such as the new Joint Strike Fighter.

“What this is about is trying to manage the risks better and by sheeting home individual and personal accountability and responsibility. We think we can manage that risk better and get better outcomes.”

The changes stem from a review of the defence accountability framework conducted by Associate Professor Rufus Black.

The Black report was delivered to the government in January and follows earlier reviews which have led to various reforms, particularly in the area of procurement which Mr Smith said were producing noticeable improvements in project delivery.

However, defence continues to have equipment problems such as with Collins submarine maintenance, and with the non-availability of navy amphibious ships for the cyclone season.

In the review, Mr Black found defence decision-making and responsibility stretched across literally hundreds of committees.

Asked if some of those committee may not have actually met for years, Mr Smith responded: “Anything is possible.”

Under the reforms, all committees cease to exist after 12 months, unless Defence force chief General David Hurley and Defence Department secretary Duncan Lewis decide they should continue.

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