AUSTRALIA'S defence minister has said that oil is one of his country's motivations for keeping its troops in Iraq.
Brendan Nelson's inclusion yesterday of global energy security as a reason for keeping troops in Iraq is likely to add weight to war protesters' arguments that the 2003 US-led invasion was more an oil grab than a bid to uncover Saddam Hussein's non-existent weapons of mass destruction.
"For these reasons in particular, one of which is energy security, it is extremely important that Australia take the view that it's in our security interests to make sure that we leave the Middle East, and leave Iraq in particular, in a position of sustainable security," Mr Nelson told the Australian broadcaster ABC.
"The Middle East itself, not only 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 added.
The minister also said a 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, and ensuring stability in the Middle East and defeating terrorism.
But Mr Nelson, in his job since January last year, was later flatly contradicted by John Howard, the prime minister.
"We are not there because of oil and we didn't go there because of oil," Mr 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.
Mr Howard, a close ally in US president George Bush's war on terrorism, sent 2,000 troops to support US and British forces in the Iraq invasion.
Australia now maintains 1,000 troops in Iraq supported by 600 air force and navy personnel in the region.
It is also involved in operations in Afghanistan, primarily on a Special Forces level.
The opposition Labour Party, which opposed the war, has pledged to remove most of Australia's troops from Iraq if it wins elections due later this year.
Robert McClelland, Labour's defence spokesman, 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," Mr McClelland said.
Hugh White, an Australian defence analyst, said oil was an underlying reason for the coalition's involvement in Iraq, but Mr 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," Mr White, of the Lowy Institute international policy think-tank, told ABC.