Chapter 2

Pierre Hutton's The Legacy of Suez

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MEC - Hutton 38-39Chapter 2 - IRAQ, SYRIA AND JORDAN
With the President of Syria, 12/5/75

During my posting in Beirut I negotiated the establishment of a resident Australian Embassy in Saudi Arabia and became the first non-resident Ambassador to Iraq in 1974 and to Jordan and Syria in 1975. I had nagged the Department over the three latter cases, pointing out that our practice of sending Ambassadors/High Commissioners without diplomatic accreditation to talk to foreign governments (the so-called "visiting and reporting responsibilities") was unfamiliar to most of them and barely productive.

Unknown to me, in November 1972 the Department had decided that "there was insufficient political content in our relations (with all four Arab countries) to satisfy the basic criterion that we accredit only where this would be of real substance and value for us". There was "no suggestion that commercial interests in the Area are being seriously hampered by the lack of diplomatic accreditation". Suddenly, there was a change of attitude. In the case of Saudi Arabia and Iraq it was influenced by the concerted action taken by Arab producers of petroleum following the Arab-Israeli War of 1973. The prospects for Australian exports to some countries of the Middle East were also now brighter, but Syria and Jordan were not among them. It could hardly be said that "the political content in (Australia's) relations" with any of them had changed. Nevertheless, for a very modest additional cost Australia was to have a significantly increased standing in the Arab World. In time, resident embassies would be established in Baghdad, Damascus and Amman but that first step was to establish diplomatic relations by my accreditation from Beirut.

Accompanied by the Commercial Counsellor, Bob Jennings, who had replaced Ian Haig, I presented my credentials to the President, Ahmed Hassan al Bakr, on 14 February 1974. The accompanying exchange of pleasantries was not animated. Sitting on a couch close to Bakr and looking at his grim features, I could reflect on why his often short-lived political opponents called him "Bakr the Butcher". Australia took some petroleum from Iraq and it was a useful market for our wheat and dairy products. One of several subsequent visits was because of Australia's participation in the annual Baghdad Trade Fair. Trade was to give me another glimpse of the haphazard way in which official policy towards the Middle East was formulated.

By telegram I was informed that a prominent Sydney businessman of Lebanese descent had told Prime Minister Whitlam , who knew him well, that he had been appointed the sole point of contact in Australia for Iraqi state trading companies. The Department of Trade wished to have my confirmation of this arrangement. I expressed much doubt but this did not satisfy that Department. Off to Baghdad I went for an illuminating meeting with the Minister for Trade. After hearing my question, his reply was terse and quite clear. Any Iraqi official entering into the arrangement that I had described would be guilty of a most serious economic crime and subject to the full rigours of the law. An early morning appointment standing against a wall in an Iraqi prison yard was the image that came to my mind. I received no apology or thanks from those who possibly believed that if Clemenceau was right in asserting that war was too serious to be left to generals, so trade relations were too serious to be entrusted to Foreign Affairs representatives.

Iraqi officials in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, located in the seized US Embassy, were always helpful in trying to arrange appointments with ministers or, more importantly, with members of the Baathist Regional Command Council. A call might come to my hotel for an appointment on the other side of Baghdad in a few minutes' time. The most remarkable appointment was at night with Adnan Hamdani, a member of the RCC and economic adviser to Vice-Chairman of the RCC, Saddam Hussein. With a Lebanese driver from the Embassy in Beirut, I negotiated a formidable number of check-points with heavily armed guards. The Western educated Hamdani was young, relaxed and well informed on existing and potential trade links with Australia. After Bakr had been turned into a non-person, the Iraqi people were told by the new President, Saddam Hussein, that Hamdani had been a secret agent for Iran. He had been denounced dramatically by Hussein while attending a meeting of the RCC and was soon executed in a grotesque manner clearly in the style of the new President. Later, when visiting London, I asked a British official with great experience of the Middle East why Hussein would have destroyed a man with such badly needed talent, a rising star. The intelligence officer smiled. Yes, Hamdani had been a rising star and that required his death.

It did not take long to sense the paranoia and fear in Baghdad. On the day I presented credentials President Ceausescu was in Baghdad. With impressive efficiency, an invitation to a Presidential reception was delivered to my hotel. I was privately advised to arrive exactly at the time on the invitation, otherwise security complications could arise. In the streets near the Presidential Palace, I noticed men waiting under bus shelters but no buses in sight. They were plain-clothes security officers. At the buffet-reception the guests awaiting the arrival of the Iraqi and Romanian Presidents were in quite distinct groups. There was the ill-at-ease diplomatic corps, the Iraqi officials, the members of Ceausescu's entourage and, talking to no one, heavily built men who had all been to the same Baghdad tailor and chosen the same material for their suits. The Presidents entered, sat at a long table facing the guests and ate without conversation. They then left and the still standing guests were herded to buffet tables where food, by now a little cooler than that which the Presidents had consumed, was provided. In languid voice a charge d'affaires from Central Europe suggested to me that Iraqi Security's lack of faith in the Diplomatic Corps was reflected in the provision of forks without knives to eat our meal.

When I visited the ill-starred Hamdani of the RCC, my Lebanese driver, while waiting for me, passed by more than once and was then stopped and questioned. On the streets the frequently seen presence of identical small cars parked with alert occupants was another reminder that this was not Canberra. My wife, Judy, went to Baghdad with me for the presentation of credentials. Our hotel room was adequate although there seemed to be a lot of excess wiring. We also noticed that there was a lot of dust and fluff on the floor around and under the bed. Remembering that to complain aloud in a Moscow hotel's bedroom about the lack of soap could often produce it, we amused ourselves by speaking of the state of the room reserved by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. On our return after eating dinner we found that all the dust and fluff had disappeared.

Travel outside Baghdad was possible, even for a non-resident Ambassador, but it was essential to advise the authorities. A trip by car to the port of Basra was approved but had to be cancelled due to a Biblical-sized flood making the roads impassable.

The temptation will be resisted to comment here on the story of emissaries of the Iraqi Baathist Party coming to Australia in December 1975 to discuss secretly with the Federal leadership of the ALP a large donation to the depleted election campaign funds. I was back in Canberra by then and not being consulted on Middle East matters. The disaster, including its exposure in a front page article in The Australian of 25 February 1976 written by Rupert Murdoch himself, is fully covered by Alan Reid in The Whitlam Venture, Paul Kelly in The Unmaking of Gough, Clyde Cameron in The Cameron Diaries and Richard Hall in The Secret State. This is not to imply that I endorse any of these accounts. I did however, have cause to smile, having known in Beirut and Baghdad the person who set up the meeting and who, it is alleged, later gave the story to Murdoch. This was Henry (Henri) Fischer, adviser at the time to the Sydney millionaire of Lebanese descent mentioned earlier who knew leading figures in the NSW Branch of the ALP. During a call at the Embassy in Beirut in early 1975 we established that he would be in Baghdad at the same time as myself. He was to see a member of the Baathist Regional Command Council whom he knew well. Would I like to meet informally with Abdul Fattah Muhammed al Yassin who, being responsible for Baathist Party organization and propaganda, was not in the habit of meeting ambassadors < resident or non-resident? I accepted and was witness to a warm greeting of Fischer by a man whose smile had the peculiar charm of that of his close colleague, Saddam Hussein. The conversation with Yassin was not extensive. He indicated that the time was approaching to obtain a better public understanding of Iraq in Australia. I sensed that Fischer was, despite his quiet spoken and unassuming manner, an unusual Australian. Walking slowly along a dusty Baghdad footpath with the temperature at about 40 degrees one day and in a rather sweaty state, I suddenly saw approaching me a composed figure in a dazzling white suit. I was Henry, standing out in the drably dressed crowd, as he hastened to yet another appointment of consequence.

On 2 March 1976, my wife and I stood with the Official Party waiting to meet King Hussein and Queen Alia of Jordan on their arrival at Canberra's RAAF Base. The scandal of the Iraqi money was by then in the open. The former Prime Minister, now Leader of the Federal Opposition, greeted me, drew me aside and asked if the human rights situation within Iraq was still "bad". I assured him that it was!

Long before I presented credentials to President Hafiz al Assad on 12 May 1975 as the first Ambassador, Syria had already become the object of demonization in the Australian media. It was one of the most implacable enemies of Israel and a home for some of the more militant Palestinian elements.

I had already made a number of visits to Syria in a non-accredited capacity or in transit to Jordan. In late 1973, my family and my wife's mother drove to the Red Sea town of Aqaba in Jordan on a road from which the Golan Heights, occupied by Israel, were clearly visible. Syria had not yet agreed to a ceasefire following the latest conflict with Israel. It was therefore astonishing that we were allowed to pass through lines of armed vehicles with crews in battle kit facing the Israeli positions. The Syrian troops were alert but polite in checking our papers. I could casually point out to my wife's mother that plumes of smoke rising from time to time in the distance may have looked like leaves burning but were artillery or mortar shells bursting.

Unlike in Iraq, I did not feel that my movements in or outside the Capital, were of great interest to the security authorities. Syria is a country with magnificent monuments from its past, but the tourist industry was small in 1975. My family and I never found any crowding at archaeological sights. We were in the northern city of Aleppo on several occasions and could never see enough of its Christian and Muslim heritage. While its grandeur was faded and its furnishings now shabby, the Baron Hotel was always our choice of accommodation. The Armenian management was hospitable and there were always something to remember from our stays. Since 1909 this once internationally known hotel had been visited by legions of desert explorers, socialites, film stars, political leaders and military officers in two World Wars. The guest book was a treat in itself. Framed at the reception desk was an account for a pre-First World War stay by one T E Lawrence. He was then doing a little low-level intelligence gathering in this part of the Turkish Empire, but was destined to become one of the lasting heroic figures of the Twentieth Century. My son Paul and I were assured that our bedroom was that occupied by Lawrence of Arabia. Looking at its condition, I could say to Paul that this was probably true since nothing seemed to have changed in it since 1914. My wife and I were amused to see an old waiter's reaction to a rude demand from a heavyweight group of tourists from the USSR. They wanted one more spoon and they got it < after the waiter had taken one from a pile of used cutlery. A quick wipe on the back of a greasy pair of trousers and it was presented to the guests.

There was, and still is, a dark side to the rule of the Syrian Baathist Party. The treatment of the tiny Jewish Community and of minority dissident groups has been most reprehensible. [NOTE] Nevertheless, Assad's long rule has brought stability and some socio-economic progress to a country in political anarchy since 1945. It is not an oil producer and agriculture is based on a countryside with soil not especially fertile. In 1975 the Syrian community in Australia was about five thousand. Migration, although not encouraged, was permitted. Trade was negligible but Qantas, in order to gain permission to cross Syrian air space, had to land at Damascus each week. There are three hundred and twenty Australian war dead from two World Wars buried in Syria in cemeteries carefully tended by the Syrians for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

Accompanied by my new Deputy, Dr Bob Merrillees, and two of my other colleagues from the Embassy in Beirut, I was greeted by a guard of honour in the street outside Assad's Residence. A local rendition of Advance Australia Fair was at first a little difficult to recognize. Assad received in turn five new ambassadors and I was last. This was beneficial, for after we had exchanged platitudes in a formal ceremony, we sat down with the President in a relaxed mood. He was well briefed on recent public modifications of Australia's policy on a Middle East settlement, and also on our recent dispute with the PLO over the proposed visit by their delegation. This meeting was well before Syria became embroiled in the Lebanese civil war but the historical attitude of Syria and its leaders to their neighbour was made clear. How, he asked, did I find Syria's small brothers in Lebanon? I felt there was an implied suggestion that these brothers were not only small but delinquent as well.

The presentation of credentials in Amman on 29 April 1975 opened diplomatic relations. These were quickly strengthened by official visits to Australia by King Hussein in March 1976 and his brother, Crown Prince Hassan, in October 1977.

My own direct involvement as ambassador accredited from Beirut was short. It assisted however in getting the monarch and his brother, Crown Prince Hassan, responsible for economic development, to focus on the benefits of fostering bilateral economic relations. This followed several in-depth talks with the Crown Prince on the relevance of Australian experience for Jordan's agricultural sector. During my farewell, the king showed candour in answering specific questions on relations with the PLO, Syria and Israel. No one else was present during my audience and, as he went into political issues at length, the allocated time soon expired. Outside, a military band began to play the national anthem of a Third World country whose ambassador had arrived to present credentials. I prepared for a hurried exit and that was clearly the expectation of slightly flustered court officials. No, said King Hussein, we are not finished. This (the presentation of credentials) will not take long. Please wait here and I will be back soon < and he was!

In preparing for the King's visit to Australia, Jim (later Sir James) Scholtens, Director of Government Ceremonial and Hospitality, had to solve a small problem of protocol. A head of state or head of government when visiting another country is accompanied by that country's ambassador accredited to his/her country. My successor in Beirut could not travel to Amman before the intensifying of the civil war in Lebanon forced his early withdrawal. There was therefore no current Australian ambassador to Jordan, but the resourceful Jim Scholtens did not hesitate. No one had ever been able to announce my recall formally to the King. I would therefore be described for all purposes connected with the visit as the ambassador, even though I was going each day from our Canberra home to an unsatisfying working situation in the Department quite unconnected with the Middle East.

The King was amused and, it seemed, glad to have with him someone to whom he could speak informally about this visit to a country unknown to him previously. This was evident when we drove from the Governor-General's Residence to Parliament House for the official luncheon offered by the Government with all members of the Federal Parliament present. Besides his interest in what the new Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser, would say, he wanted to know all about Gough Whitlam, who was attending the first function of this kind since "The Dismissal". My prior briefing of the Prime Minister with Foreign Minister Andrew Peacock present was unusual. Malcolm Fraser's chief interest seemed to be whether Jordan had relations with the EEC.

This visit prepared the way for the detailed discussions that the Crown Prince was to have in Australia the following year. By then, John McCarthy, Charge d'Affaires in Damascus, since the Embassy in Beirut was now closed, assisted effectively in Amman before Prince Hassan travelled to Australia. Both he and I travelled with the royal visitor and all went well. An Embassy was opened in Amman in 1979 with a resident Charge and with a resident Ambassador from 1982. It has provided a solid Australian presence in the Middle East.


Once, on instructions, I conveyed to the Foreign Ministry the Australian Government's concern over the treatment of the Jewish community. The response was non-committal. 

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