Less than a year after the last Australian troops left Iraq, Royal Australian Air Force planes are back to distribute aid and weapons to fighters battling Islamic State (IS) militants.
But Prime Minister Tony Abbott played down talk that Australian troops could be sent into the country, saying there was no role “envisaged” for boots on the ground.
RAAF planes have started operations above the besieged Shiite town of Amerli in north-eastern Iraq.
Mr Abbott confirmed the air drops of humanitarian aid after earlier announcing RAAF aircraft based in Dubai would deliver munitions and arms from Eastern Europe to outgunned Kurdish Peshmerga forces fighting the Sunni militants.
He said Australia would join the US, Canada, Italy, France and the United Kingdom in supplying weaponry and aid to communities under threat by IS over coming days.
While the commitment has been supported by Labor, federal independent MP Andrew Wilkie said Australia has effectively gone to war in Iraq by agreeing to extend RAAF involvement.
Mr Wilkie says the situation in Iraq is dire but the Parliament must have a vote about future Australian involvement.
“If the Australian Government, if Tony Abbott wants us to be gun runners for the Kurds at the behest of the United States then we are part of the war, we have gone to war, we’ve taken sides,” he said.
Obama asks for help
The Prime Minister said that Australian forces had participated in a humanitarian air drop to the besieged town of Amerli.
“We have done so at the request of the Obama Administration and with the permission of the Iraqi Government,” he said.
“I can announce that in coming days, an Australian C-17 aircraft will be involved in air lifting equipment and supplies to Erbil in the Kurdish part of Iraq.
“I can also say that we stand ready to participate in further humanitarian air drops in Iraq should these be required.”
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten said Labor supported the Government’s decision to contribute to “a remarkable act of international cooperation” to assist communities in Iraq with humanitarian relief and weaponry.
“What we see today is the air forces of several countries resupplying with light weapons Kurdish Peshmerga troops who are the front line against the Islamic State incursions in northern Iraq,” he said.
Australia has already been heavily involved in humanitarian airdrops to civilians caught up in the fighting, prompting Greens leader Christine Milne to question if airstrikes and troop deployment were next.
“If we’re going to start, where is it going to end?” Senator Milne asked. “It is more important than ever that the prime minister tells Australians what is the strategy here, what are we going to commit to.”
‘No boots on the ground’
Mr Abbott said there was “no role envisaged for combat troops” and there was not an appetite for another Middle Eastern war but he said it was “important to do what reasonably can be done to avert potential genocide.”
Chief of Defence Air Chief Marshal Mark Binskin said the Australian humanitarian mission on Sunday morning delivered 15 pallets of food, water and hygiene packs, enough for 2,600 people for a day.
The food came from the World Food Program and the hygiene packs were from AusAid and marked “Aid from Australia”. The aircraft since has returned safely to the base.
Mr Abbott said the National Security Committee of Cabinet gave in-principle support to the operation almost two weeks ago but there has been “no specific request” for combat troops to fight IS.
“Any military activity by Australia over and above the humanitarian air drops and the military air lift that we have talked about now will be in participation … with allies and it would be at the request of the government of Iraq but no specific request has been made.”
Mr Abbott has rejected calls for a parliamentary debate over Australia’s involvement in Iraq saying the Government has abided by “the standard conventions which have always been applied to the deployment of Australian military forces”.
—with AAP, ABC