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Wilkie calls Howard to answer on Iraq

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Tasmanian federal Independent MP Andrew Wilkie is calling for former prime minister John Howard to explain before an official inquiry why Australia went to war in Iraq.

The call comes as the last Australian soldiers to be stationed in the strife-torn nation have been withdrawn from duty.

Defence Minister Stephen Smith said the last 17 ADF members had been withdrawn on August 6.

The group had been left to defend the Australian embassy after the bulk of our soldiers were pulled out in 2008 and 2009. That job is now handled by private contractors.

Mr Wilkie said yesterday that Mr Howard and former Coalition foreign minister Alexander Downer must be made to explain why they took Australia to war based on a lie in 2003. He wants an inquiry similar to the one being conducted by Sir John Chilcot in Britain.

Former British prime minister Tony Blair was called to give evidence to that inquiry in 2010 and in January this year.

"The vision on television of Tony Blair being grilled [by the inquiry] was a very powerful image," MrWilkie said. "The British inquiry shows it is not too late."

The Chilcot inquiry could report as early as next month. It has quizzed senior politicians, public servants and military officers since its inception in 2009.

Mr Wilkie said inquiries during the Howard years had been hamstrung by narrow terms of reference and never tried to call the politicians to account.

"They were [just] an attempt to shift the blame on to the intelligence agencies," he said.

Mr Wilkie, a former lieutenant-colonel, resigned as an Office of National Assessments intelligence analyst in March 2003.

Disgusted by what he considered to be high-level deceit, he then went public saying there was no evidence for Mr Howard's claims Iraq had weapons of mass destruction it could give to terrorists.

No physical evidence of such weapons has ever been found. Mr Wilkie said the issue had never gone away.

"Howard said people had moved on.

"That's not true; every day I come into contact with people who want questions about our involvement in the war answered."

He agreed it had made sense to hold off on such an inquiry while there were still Australian troops in harm's way in Iraq - but that was no longer the case.

Mr Wilkie said the final withdrawal closed "one of the darkest chapters" in modern Australian history.

Others are not so sure John Howard got it wrong.

The strategy and international program director with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, Rod Lyon, said history had shown Saddam Hussein was prepared to give weapons to his enemies.

"I don't believe it [Australia's involvement] was based on a lie," he said.

"We knew Saddam had built chemical weapons and used them on his own people and the Iranians.

"We knew Iraq had weaponised biological agents and the first Gulf War had shown the country was further down the road to nuclear weapons than many people had believed. The coalition had grounds for genuine suspicion."

The professor of Strategic Studies at the Australian National University, Hugh White, said Australia's involvement in the invasion of Iraq had been at least as controversial as the war in Vietnam.

"With Vietnam there was at least an argument for being there you could agree with or disagree with," he said.

He questioned Labor's position that the war in Iraq was bad and the war in Afghanistan was good.

"The two [conflicts] have more in common than you might think. In both cases we went there because of the American alliance."

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