Middle East

Australia set to expand military role in Iraq

A Royal Australian Air Force FA-18F Super Hornet returns to its base in the Middle East following a mission over Iraq

Australia is set to expand its military involvement in Iraq, as part of a joint training mission with New Zealand.

(Transcript from World News Radio)

Australia is poised to send more than 200 extra troops to Iraq as part of a joint training mission with New Zealand to boost the campaign against the self-proclaimed Islamic State, or IS.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who's visiting New Zealand tomorrow, has indicated an announcement could be made soon.

New Zealand's Prime Minister has already had to fend off claims the area where most troops will be stationed will be in the close vicinity of IS fighters.

Darren Mara reports.

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Tony Abbott has not necessarily wanted to talk about sending more Australian troops into Iraq, but with his cross-Tasman counterpart jumping in and announcing the move, he had to.

"We have been talking to our allies, we've been talking to the Iraqis, about what more we could do to assist the Iraqis to reclaim their own country. It's not up to Australia, America or any other outsider to reclaim Iraq for the Iraqis, but it is important that the death cult be defeated."

On Tuesday, New Zealand Prime Minister John Key told his parliament a 400-strong joint Australia-New Zealand training team would back Iraqi forces battling IS fighters.

The force would include up to 143 New Zealanders.

Mr Key says the New Zealanders will depart in May, working with Australians to train Iraqi units capable of combat operations against IS, also known as ISIL or ISIS.

But he says the New Zealanders and Australians will not engage in combat themselves.

"Such an operation would be 'behind the wire' and limited to training Iraqi security forces in order to counter ISIL and legitimately protect innocent people. This is likely to be a joint training mission with Australia, although it will not be badged as an Anzac force. The task will be to train Iraqi security-force units so they are able to commence combat operations and to eventually be able to carry out the work of our trainers, creating an independent, self-sustaining military capability for the government of Iraq to call on."

The two leaders are due to meet tomorrow and on Saturday to discuss the military advice from Defence Force chiefs such as Australia's Air Chief Marshall Mark Binskin.

"I and my New Zealand counterpart have worked very, very closely on developing options that were put to both governments. The government of Australia is yet to make a final decision."

In New Zealand, Opposition Leader Andrew Little has raised concerns about the location apparently chosen for deployment, the Taji military complex.

The joint United States-Iraqi base lies about 30 kilometres north of Baghdad in a treacherous area.

"This is one of the most dangerous areas in the world. The Taji camp is within spitting distance of where ISIS is."

Mr Key acknowledges some risk for the troops.

"By definition, Iraq is a risky environment. But they're much safer behind the wire. There's going to be, obviously, force protection from ourselves and others, and there will be Iraqi forces outside the base. So, look, on the balance of things, it's the safest place for them, in the context of being in Iraq."

Australia has had a substantial military involvement in Iraq since 2003.

Currently, 200 special-forces soldiers largely advise the local forces, with another 400 in air combat.

That compares with around 20,000 people deployed between 2003 and 2009.

Operation Falconer, Australia's contribution to the 2003 invasion, included 500 special forces, navy divers and others.

With president Saddam Hussein ousted and no weapons of mass destruction found, the mission became Operation Catalyst, consisting mainly of army trainers and medical staff.

In 2005, 500 soldiers were sent to protect Japanese engineers involved in reconstruction.

Most Australian troops were withdrawn in mid-2008, when Kevin Rudd declared "mission over"

A recent media report said Tony Abbott suggested last November that 3500 troops be sent to Iraq in what the report called a unilateral Australian invasion.

But Defence Department secretary Dennis Richardson has scoffed at that.

"He has never raised that idea with the ADF (Australian Defence Force) or the Department of Defence, formally or informally, directly or indirectly. So the question has simply not arisen."

Mr Abbott has also rejected the report as fanciful.



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