Peters says what Clark can't on Iraq [audio]

By Audrey Young

Foreign Minister Winston Peters yesterday said Iraq would slide into total chaos if the United States withdrew at present - a conclusion that Prime Minister Helen Clark has carefully avoided making publicly.

New Zealand opposed the United States' invasion of Iraq and though Helen Clark might privately agree that it would be disastrous for the United States to withdraw now, to say so would imply a support of the United States being there at all.

And that is a step too far for her.

Mr Peters made his comment at a press conference with Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer after six-monthly talks in Wellington.

They were warmly received by Mr Downer, whose Government is standing firm in its military support of the United States in Iraq.

Helen Clark, who had to field several questions about Mr Peters' comment at her post-Cabinet press conference a few hours later, is expected to announce this week that she has had a second invitation to the White House to meet President George W. Bush.

Helen Clark would not endorse the comments that others might see as merely stating the obvious - that withdrawal by the US would court disaster.

The visit has been arranged when both countries are trying to promote their spheres of co-operation and ignore their differences.

She also came to her press conference armed with a transcript of what Mr Peters had said, so had clearly already been advised it could be contentious.

In response to a question she said he had not been "as bald" as stating that the United States should remain in Iraq at present.

"The situation in Iraq is an extremely difficult one. We are not there. We do not have troops there and I think it is gratuitous for me to give advice to those who do."

Asked if she agreed with Mr Peters' view, she said: "Mr Peters said for the record that New Zealand had not supported the intervention.

"We are not there, we are not part of it and I do not presume to give advice to those who did go and are still there on the manner and timing of withdrawal."

Mr Peters is in the unusual position of being Foreign Minister, but outside of Government. Anything he says on Foreign Affairs, however, is meant to reflect the Government's policy.

Today Mr Peters accused the media of using his comments selectively and of "mischief-making".

He said the pair had discussed the issue yesterday and there were no problems between them on it. "She said she fully understood the rider I put on the front of it and the context in which I was saying it."

Helen Clark said yesterday she had not discussed the nuclear capability of Iran during her talks with Mr Downer.

Mr Downer at his press conference pressed for greater New Zealand concern, as an anti-nuclear country and with its love of the United Nations.

"Here we are in New Zealand, with a country which has historically been very concerned about nuclear weapons and nuclear power.

"So I think in New Zealand the concern should be 'what are we going to do now that Iran has not complied with the Security Council resolution?'."

"In New Zealand people respect the United Nations; they think Security Council resolutions are important. Then let's get behind the Security Council and the United Nations."

Mr Downer said the United States was not planning a military attack on Iran, "and nobody's ever said they were". "So instead of beating up on the Bush Administration, I think people should be beating up on - if I could use this in the nicest possible way - diplomatically beating up on [Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad] and encouraging him to respect the United Nations."

Helen Clark said later that at this point Iran had not been able to convince enough members of the international community that it is not intent on developing a weapon.

Asked if New Zealand believed Iran was or wasn't developing a weapon, she said: "We don't know.

"Who does? The problem is their lack of transparency.

"And what the international community is asking for is transparency. 'Open your facilities, be honest, give the information, don't play games with that.' And really the pressure has to go on for full disclosure."

Mr Peters and Mr Downer are to meet again next month at a Pacific Island Forum foreign ministers conference in Vanuatu to discuss a report by an eminent persons group on the Fiji coup.

Peters on Iraq

"Our position in New Zealand is clearly to seek an outcome in Iraq where there is democratic Government in control of it. The issue now is how can there be an exit from Iraq where there is a successful self-governing democracy without outside intervention.

"Anything we can do even now to assist with that occurring outside direct military engagement but in other ways, New Zealand will seek to do.

Q: Could that goal be achieved through military withdrawal?
"You're asking whether that will be a sound step at this point in time. I will give you my opinion. I cannot see how it would [be an] advantage that happening right now in February of 2007. I think the circumstances would slide into total chaos if that [the US to withdraw] was to happen."

Downer on NZ

"We've had some difficult times in East Timor and in the Solomon Islands. Who is always there with us? Who can we always rely on? I'll tell you who we can always rely on. New Zealand. You can always rely on them."

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