Australia to send 300 extra troops to Iraq on joint training mission with NZ
03 March 2015, Nirapad News: Australia will deploy another 300 troops to Iraq to work with New Zealand counterparts on a joint mission to train Iraqi military in the fight against Islamic State (ISIS).
The prime minister, Tony Abbott, announced on Tuesday that Australia would increase its existing commitment of 200 special forces soldiers assisting the Iraqi military and the 400-strong air force task group conducting air strikes.
Abbott said the decision, in line with requests from the US and Iraqi governments, represented the “next phase” of Australia’s contribution to disrupt, degrade and ultimately defeat Isis, describing the group as an “apocalyptic, millennial death cult”. But Australia’s benchmark for success remained unclear and the government’s two-year deadline was not firm.
Abbott said he would not be “too prescriptive at this stage” but the objective was to achieve an “effective Iraqi regular army that can take and hold ground so that Iraq can once more be sovereign over its territory”.
He said the number of Australian troops involved in the training mission was yet to be finalized, but he anticipated it would be about 300. The mission, expected to begin in May, would involve regular Australian forces based in Taji, northwest of Baghdad.
“I want to stress that we haven’t taken this decision lightly,” Abbott said. “Ultimately, it is Iraq that must defeat the death cult but we do not want to leave the Iraqis on their own.”
The defense minister, Kevin Andrews, said the decision was “not open-ended” and would be reviewed “from time to time”. Abbott suggested the new mission was likely to have a two-year time frame with a review every 12 months.
A key indicator in those reviews would be the effectiveness of the armed forces, Abbott said, noting that the Iraqi regular army had “melted like snow in summer” in the face of the initial onslaught by Isis.
“What the Australian people want is security at home, but you can’t have security at home without doing your bit for security abroad, because it is the Daesh [Isis] death cult which is reaching out to us here in this country,” Abbott said.
Abbott confirmed most of the 170 Australian special forces soldiers currently in Iraq would leave Iraq when the current rotation ended in September.
He said these special forces were involved in advising and assisting the Iraqi counter-terrorism service, but attention needed to turn now to the Iraqi regular army. The defence chief, Air Chief Marshal Mark Binskin, acknowledged the risks Australian personnel would face on the new mission, saying he took the matter “very seriously” and there was “a large force protection element involved in this deployment”.
Abbott, when asked about the cooperation of New Zealand, said there were “obviously historical parallels” with the Gallipoli campaign in 1915.
“I’m very pleased and proud that in this centenary of Anzac year that Australia and New Zealand will be contributing to this important mission,” he said.
The announcement follows sign-off at a cabinet meeting on Monday, and he advised his colleagues of the decision at a meeting of the Coalition parties on Tuesday. It is understood the opposition leader, Bill Shorten, was briefed shortly before Abbott addressed the media.
Shorten was initially prevented by the speaker, Bronwyn Bishop, from making a statement on the Iraq decision during parliamentary question time on Tuesday. Abbott then made a formal statement to enable Shorten to deliver his response.
“The last thing I would want is to have the opposition feel that they were deprived of a full statement by the government on this subject and deprived of an opportunity to respond,” Abbott said. Shorten told parliament his thoughts were with the troops, whose bravery was widely admired as they performed valuable, important and dangerous work in Iraq.
“Australia’s mission in Iraq is not about pursuing territory or power but helping the displaced and protecting the vulnerable,” Shorten said.
“We do not seek to assert the supremacy of one faith or one people but defend the rights of all faiths and all peoples. Labor believes that peace and tolerance can and will prevail over poisonous hatred and fanaticism in Iraq, in the region and of course everywhere. That’s our shared hope and our common cause.”
The decision was foreshadowed a week ago, when the New Zealand prime minister John Key said his country was sending 143 troops to Iraq in what was “likely to be a joint training mission with Australia”. Late last week, Abbott travelled to New Zealand for talks with Key.
Related: Tony Abbott denies reports he wanted Australian ground troops in Iraq
While Abbott was making the announcement on Monday, the Senate was discussing an attempt by the leader of the Greens, Christine Milne, to suspend normal business to debate the Iraq conflict.
The independent MP Andrew Wilkie denounced the “bad decision” to deploy more troops, saying it would not help solve the crisis in Iraq. He said the presence of western troops in Iraq “on and off for 12 years” had created resentment.
“We are now reaping what we sowed in 2003 when we helped start a war that has run unabated for 12 years, which created the instability in that country which has allowed the emergence of Islamic State,” he said.
A Labor member asked, during the party’s caucus meeting in Canberra earlier on Tuesday morning, whether “mission creep” was occurring in Iraq.
In response, Shorten reaffirmed the four principles guiding Labor’s support for action in Iraq, including not deploying ground combat units to directly engage in fighting Isis. He also referred to his recent visit to Baghdad, saying the view from the troops was that it would be counterproductive to put them on the front line of the fight against Isis.
The US president, Barack Obama, signalled after a meeting with Abbott in Beijing in November that Australia might be asked to increase its commitment to the Iraq conflict.