Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has described the situation in Iraq as ‘‘deeply disturbing’’ while defending the 2003 removal of Saddam Hussein as ‘‘a good thing.’’
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Horrific images have emerged of what appears to be the mass execution of Iraqi soldiers in the hands of the jihadist group Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
Interviewed on Channel Ten on Sunday, Ms Bishop said she did not expect Australian troops to return to Iraq in response to an offensive by jihadist group Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, who last week seized control of the country’s second largest city, Mosul, as well as the town of Tikrit, the birthplace of Saddam Hussein.
‘‘I didn’t envisage a circumstance where we would be sending in troops. But we certainly stand ready to support the humanitarian crisis should a request be made,’’ Ms Bishop said.
‘‘There hasn’t been a request from the Iraqi government, as far as I’m aware.’’
Ms Bishop said militants were attacking other cities and key infrastructure, including oil refineries, killing hundreds of people and leading 500,000 people to flee Mosul and other cities.
‘‘That adds to the about 225,000 Syrian refugees that are currently in Iraq, as well as about 300,000 displaced people as a result of previous conflicts and fighting earlier in the year,’’ Ms Bishop said.
‘‘So a humanitarian crisis is unfolding and this highly extreme and violent and brutal terrorist group is now in control of cities in the north-west of Iraq,’’ she said.
Ms Bishop said Iraqi security forces were amassing north of Baghdad to repel any effort by militants to take the capital.
‘‘Now, I’m informed that there’s no possibility of that, but it’s a very volatile, fluid situation and we respond accordingly and make judgments on the information that we have.’’
Ms Bishop was a member of the Howard government which committed Australian forces to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Asked on Sunday whether this had been a mistake in light of current events, Ms Bishop said: ‘‘Well, I supported the liberation of Iraq at that time. I thought Saddam Hussein was one of the worst dictators on the planet at that time. And his removal was a good thing.’’
Ms Bishop said nobody could have predicted the events that had followed, including the wave of protests and uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa which became known as the Arab Spring.
Ms Bishop said commercial flights continued to operate out of Baghdad and she called on any Australians who are in Iraq to leave the country immediately.
‘‘If Australians must stay in Iraq, they must ensure that their personal circumstances and their security is absolutely safe, because given the circumstances, our embassy in Baghdad will be very constrained in the kind of consular support that we can provide.’’
The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said those concerned about the welfare of their Australian family and friends currently in Iraq should attempt to make contact with them directly.
People unable to do so are encouraged to call the department’s 24 hour Consular Emergency Centre.
Ms Bishop said she had spoken to Australia’s ambassador in Baghdad, Lyndall Sachs, to ensure that Australian personnel were safe and secure.
The US has pledged support for the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in fending off the onslaught.
US President Barack Obama has said Washington was considering its options but would not be sending troops.
His national security team is working on a range of other options, likely to include air strikes.
On Saturday US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered the aircraft carrier the USS George HW Bush to sail into the Persian Gulf as Mr Obama considers possible military options for Iraq.
Speaking to reporters in Houston on Saturday, Mr Abbott said he would wait to see how the US responds to the situation before developing an Australian response.
‘‘The important thing at the moment is to let the Americans work their way forward,’’ he said.
Asked about Australia’s response, Mr Abbott said there would be the ‘‘sort of discussions that close allies have with each other’’ before any involvement.
Opposition leader Bill Shorten told reporters on Friday that any Australian military response would have to be ‘‘the Australian national interest’’ to win Labor’s support.
‘‘We’re not a blank cheque, and the test which Labor would apply on behalf of the Australian people would be, would sending troops to Iraq be in the Australian national interest. That’s the test that matters, and historically Labor didn’t support sending troops to search for weapons of mass destruction,’’ he said.
Interviewed on ABC TV on Sunday, Greens leader Christine Milne described the situation in Iraq as ‘‘horrendous’’ but added ‘‘following the Americans into another war is not going to fix it.’’
‘‘We do not want to follow the United States blindly as John Howard did. And clearly, it didn't work last time in Iraq and it won't work this time,’’ Senator Milne said.