Prime Minister John Howard insisted oil had nothing to do with Australia's involvement in the Iraq war, contradicting his defense minister who said Thursday that protecting Iraq's oil supplies is one of his country's motivations for keeping troops there.
Defense Minister Brendan Nelson's inclusion of global energy security as a reason for keeping troops in Iraq is likely to add weight to war protesters' arguments that the 2003 U.S.-led invasion was more an oil grab than a bid to uncover Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction, which proved to be nonexistent.
Howard responded with media interviews Thursday in which he denied any connection between Iraq's oil and the invasion and ongoing occupation four years later.
"We are not there because of oil and we didn't go there because of oil," Howard told Sydney Radio 2GB.
"A lot of oil comes from the Middle East — we all know that — but the reason we remain there is that we want to give the people of Iraq a possibility of embracing democracy," he added.
Earlier Nelson, who became defense minister in January last year, told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio that the foremost reason behind Australia's decision to remain in Iraq was "to make sure a humanitarian crisis does not develop between Sunnis and Shiites and driven by al Qaeda if we were to leave prematurely."
He said other reasons — which the government has previously stated — included supporting a key ally, the United States, ensuring stability in the Middle East and defeating terrorism.
The Middle East, including Iraq, "is an important supplier of energy, oil in particular, to the rest of the world, and Australians ... need to think what would happen if there were a premature withdrawal from Iraq," he told ABC.
In a speech on Australia's current and future security threats, Howard highlighted diminishing oil supplies as a danger to global peace.
Howard, a close ally in U.S. President George W. Bush's war on terror, sent 2,000 troops to support U.S. and British forces in the Iraq invasion.
Australia maintains 1,000 troops in Iraq supported by 600 air force and navy personnel in the region.
The opposition Labor Party, which opposed the war, has pledged to remove most of Australia's troops from Iraq if it wins elections due late this year.
Labor defense spokesman Robert McClelland accused the government of shifting from its denial that oil was a motivation for the war.
"It's taken them four years to acknowledge that fact," McClelland said.
Defense analyst Hugh White said oil was an underlying reason for the coalition's involvement in Iraq, but Nelson had erred by raising it as the government searches for new reasons to stay in Iraq.
"In the kind of washing machine of different arguments that they've been tossing around, the oil one has come to the surface, so to speak, accidentally," White, of the Lowy Institute international policy think-tank, told ABC.