Australia is poised to expand its military role in Iraq, with Federal Cabinet approving a plan to send another 300 soldiers to help train forces fighting Islamic State militants.
Some 200 Australian special forces are already in Iraq helping train Iraqi government forces.
Now Federal Cabinet has agreed to send up to 300 more troops as part of a joint training mission with New Zealand.
The plan was put to the Coalition party room this morning.
The move was flagged last week by New Zealand prime minister John Key, who told his country’s parliament that more than 140 New Zealand troops would be sent to Iraq as part of a new deployment alongside Australian personnel.
“This is likely to be a joint training mission with Australia, although it won’t be badged an Anzac force,” he said.
Mr Key phoned Prime Minister Tony Abbott ahead of his announcement, and the two leaders discussed the issue when Mr Abbott visited Auckland at the weekend.
The Federal Opposition is supporting the deployment providing four conditions are met.
It says the troops must be there at the request of Iraq’s government; the mission must be confined to Iraq; Australian ground combat units must not be deployed; and if the Iraqi security forces engage in unacceptable conduct, or the Iraqi government adopts unacceptable policies, then Australia should withdraw its support.
In Iraq, government forces have launched an offensive against Islamic State north of Baghdad, aiming to drive the militants out of the strategically important town of Tikrit, the birthplace of former dictator Saddam Hussein.
The offensive is the biggest military operation in the province since the Sunni Islamist radicals seized large areas of northern Iraq last June and advanced towards the capital.
The joint Australian-New Zealand deployment would aim at training Iraqi troops to take back cities held by Islamic State, including Mosul.
Assistant Defence Minister Stuart Robert has warned that task should not be under-estimated.
“Mosul is a city of up to 2 million people. The last time a city of that size was taken would probably be Seoul in 1951, and, before that, Berlin 1945. So don’t underestimate the complexity of this task,” he said.
Mr Robert said the training was crucial because taking Mosul would require the Iraqi military to deploy up to 10 brigades.
Defence Force Chief Mark Binskin recently said the morale of Iraqi security forces had been decimated and undermined, and the units were fragmented.
“It has taken time to bring these units back together again and be able to start to train them up,” he said. “That is the situation that we are in right now, and that is why it is going to take time to do this.
“You have to build the core back again. You have to build the capability, the confidence and skills to be able to operate in a modern environment.
“The aim of the coalition plan from now in building their capacity is not the real basic skills, the recruit skills; it is taking formed units and rebuilding their skills. So from the basic manoeuvring, up to integrating to the battalion and the brigade headquarters, and being able to plan and conduct a successful operation; importantly, to be able to take and hold ground. I think that is the best way to describe it,” Air Chief Marshal Binskin said.
He said that training would include how to use intelligence, not just in planning but whilst in the midst of an operation, as well as how to use air power to the best effect.
“That is the sort of capacity that we are talking about building up. It is not the ability to point a rifle and shoot; it is that joint-force way of doing business,” he told Senate estimates last week.
Defence Department secretary Dennis Richardson has also sounded a warning about the size of the task.
“It is important also to appreciate that Daesh or ISIL [Islamic State] is well led. It is not a rabble of immature foreign fighters running around at the back of utes. It is led by experienced former Iraqi generals and others with substantial military experience. So as an enemy, as brutal and as nasty and as terrible as they are, you should not underestimate their capability,” Mr Richardson said last week.
Months of US-led air strikes, backed up by the Shiite militias, Kurdish Peshmerga fighters and Iraqi soldiers, have contained Islamic State and pushed it back from around Baghdad, the Kurdish north, and the eastern province of Diyala.
Australian warplanes have also taken part in the campaign of air strikes against Islamic State.