Federal Politics

Australian troops' key role as Ramadi wrested from Islamic State

David Wroe

Elite Australian commandos guided more than 150 air strikes against the so-called Islamic State to help secure the Iraqi Army's most significant victory so far against the brutal jihadist organisation.

Iraqi army declares victory over IS in Ramadi

After weeks of pitched fighting for control of Ramadi, government forces say they have retaken the city's central administration complex from IS, declaring a victory over the militants.

Detailing for the first time the Australian troops' role in the recapturing of Ramadi in recent days, military operations chief David Johnston said the Australians had played a key role in driving Islamic State fighters out of the city west of Baghdad.

The liberation of Ramadi, symbolised by Iraqi troops raising the national flag over government buildings on Monday, is being widely hailed as a pivotal win for the beleaguered local forces, whose morale had been sapped by routings at the hands of the militants over the past 18 months.

Australian and New Zealand personnel at the Taji Military Complex, Iraq.
Australian and New Zealand personnel at the Taji Military Complex, Iraq.  Photo: CAPT Adrian Miller

Critically, the victory in the Sunni-dominated Anbar provincial capital was carried out without help from Shiite irregular militias, who had previously done much of the fighting but also stand accused of their own sectarian atrocities.

Vice-Admiral Johnston, the Chief of Joint Operations in the Australian Defence Force, said in a statement on Thursday morning that Australian special forces advisers at Iraq bases helped Iraqi commandos remotely, including by directing air strikes.

He said Australians acting as air strike spotters or "joint terminal attack controllers" (JTACs) had enabled more than 150 strikes in support of the 1st Iraqi Special Operations Force Brigade, helping them battle their way into the city.

The Australians were constantly on the phone to Iraqi commandos who were on the battlefield, giving tactical advice.

An Iraqi soldier flashes the victory sign after entering the government complex in central Ramadi.
An Iraqi soldier flashes the victory sign after entering the government complex in central Ramadi. Photo: AP

These strikes destroyed about 50 Islamic State fighting positions, 16 heavy machine guns and some car and truck bombs.

"It is deeply satisfying to see how the Australian Special Operations Task Group in Iraq have supported 1st ISOF Brigade through the advise and assist mission," he said.

Previously Vice-Admiral Johnston has explained that the Australian commandos advise the Iraqis and direct air strikes in real time remotely while remaining "behind the wire" on bases.

They stay in close verbal touch with Iraqis counterparts who are out on the battlefield and receive information that is then "fused" with other data, from sources such as drones and satellites, to identify moving Islamic State targets, he said at a briefing to journalists a fortnight ago.

"We will have JTACs in an operations centre who are in direct communications with Iraqis who are conducting the fight themselves. As [the Iraqis] might move into an area and identify mortar locations or where snipers might be located, that information will come back through our JTACs in order to be able to get coalition air to provide that integrated support.

"[The Iraqis] are in voice communications with our people, so they'll be able to pass back a verbal report, grid references of the locations of where the activity is occurring."

In his statement on Thursday, Vice-Admiral Johnston added that Australian Hornet fighter planes had bombed Islamic State targets in Ramadi on December 22 and 29.

"As a direct result of at least one attack, the Daesh fighters were silenced and the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Services were able to continue with their clearance of central Ramadi," he said, using an alternative name for the Islamic State group.

In total, Australian Hornets have carried out 99 missions and dropped 96 bombs since July in the fight for Ramadi.

Also, Iraqi soldiers trained by Australians at Taji base north of Baghdad had been involved in the fight for the city.

Troops from Iraq's 76th Brigade had helped ring Ramadi, clearing hidden bombs and pinned down Islamic State fighters using mortar fire, he said.