Prime Minister Tony Abbott has moved to ease public fears Australia could rush into a new war in Iraq, but warned the Islamic State “death cult” needs to be stopped.
Australian defence personnel are expected to conduct a third aid drop in northern Iraq within days – this time including guns and ammunition – as Kurdish Peshmerga forces battle Islamic State extremists.
Prior to this week’s mission to Erbil, RAAF aircraft have taken part in humanitarian airdrops to people trapped on Mount Sinjar and the besieged inhabitants of the town of Amerli.
Mindful of the divisive debate over the Iraq war in 2003, Mr Abbott told parliament on Monday the government had properly weighed up the risks.
“Many Australians are understandably apprehensive about the risk of becoming involved in another long and costly conflict in the Middle East,” he said.
“Doing anything involves serious risks and weighty consequences. But doing nothing involves risks and consequences too.”
Australia could not leave the Iraqi people to face the horror of Islamic State, which he described as a “death cult”.
Labor joined the coalition to vote down a Greens motion calling for parliamentary approval of the latest mission.
But the government and opposition later agreed on a two-hour Senate debate.
The prime minister laid out four principles behind the government’s decision to provide weapons and ammunition sourced from eastern Europe, but ruled out putting combat troops on the ground.
The principles included a clear and achievable overall objective, a proportionate role for Australian forces, a proper risk assessment and an overall humanitarian objective.
“Like President Obama, Australia has no intention to commit combat troops on the ground. But we’re not inclined to stand by in the face of preventable genocide either,” Mr Abbott said.
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten said the government also needed to ensure Iraq set up a unity government in coming months and that Australia denied the opportunity for its citizens to join the extremists and return home with terrorist skills.
“We should not confuse empty jingoism and aggressive nationalism with steady decision-making,” he said.
Nor should we ignore the “dreadful consequences of fanaticism and extremism”.
Admitting he had not spoken with the Abbott government, Iraq’s ambassador to Australia Mouayed Saleh suggested the guns should go through the central government in Baghdad rather than the Peshmerga.
“We are not saying they shouldn’t have weapons, it just needs to be organised and coordinated with the central government,” he told Sky News.
The new Iraqi government headed by prime minister-designate Haider al-Abadi is set to be sworn in within the fortnight.
Greens leader Christine Milne said Barack Obama had himself admitted he did not have a strategy for Iraq and yet Australia was “simply running behind” the US President.
Islamic State’s campaign of fighting, beheadings and mass executions will be the subject of NATO talks involving Foreign Minister Julie Bishop this week.
Labor frontbencher Penny Wong said her party had opposed Australian intervention in Iraq in 2003 but endorsed President Obama’s response which was “methodical and internationally inclusive”.