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Milne: Have we learnt nothing?

As debate over action in Iraq heats up, Greens leader Christine Milne questions the legality of any mission to Iraq when "there has been no UN resolution in relation to this matter".

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  • Australia's involvement in the conflict raging in northern Iraq is nothing like the intervention in 2003, Prime Minister Tony Abbott has said, in a bid to reassure voters after Australia's decade-long conflict in the troubled nation.

    Mr Abbott, on Monday, did the rounds of television media after announcing on Sunday that Australia would directly supply Kurdish fighters in Erbil with weapons to help them fight Islamic State, alongside coalition allies including the US, Britain, Canada, France and Italy.

    'Nothing like' 2003: Prime Minister Tony Abbott says the involvement in Iraq is different to Australia's intervention a decade ago.

    'Nothing like' 2003: Prime Minister Tony Abbott says the involvement in Iraq is different to Australia's intervention a decade ago. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

    He also rejected the need for parliamentary permission to engage in Iraq again, a move being pushed by the Greens and independent MP Andrew Wilkie, as "novel" and said military decisions were always taken by the government's national security committee and then the cabinet. 

    Greens leader Christine Milne will attempt to suspend parliament in the Senate on Monday to force a debate on the issue.

    "Australia must have its independent foreign policy," said Senator Milne, who said the United Nations had not called for international intervention into Iraq.

    Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has said Australia has a "responsibility" to help the Kurds because of the number of radicalised Australians who have joined Islamic State and are fighting alongside terrorists in Iraq and Syria and has warned that the barbaric organisation needs to be eliminated.

    "What we have to do is contain this terrorist threat and ultimately eliminate it and that means destroy its structure, destroy its organisation," she told Melbourne radio 3AW on Monday.

    Air Force Chief Mark Binskin has said Australian troops will personally hand over rocket propelled grenades, mortars and ammunition to Kurdish officials from the Peshmerga and warned that "we want to make sure that we know where the arms go and the munitions go when we deliver [them]".

    Mr Abbott on Monday refused to comment on Fairfax Media's report that SAS soldiers would accompany troops on the flights to provide security for the weapons handover, saying it was an operational matter.

    He also raised the prospect of more military support if a request came from the US, but expressly ruled out troops on the ground taking part in combat.

    "I certainly don't rule out further military involved but I do rule out combat troops on the ground," Mr Abbott told the Seven Network.

    "Whatever might be done in the future will be in partnership with our allies and with the support of the Iraqi government so there is a world of difference between what is happening now and what happened 10 years or so back."

    Mr Abbott said the weapons airlifts would begin in "coming days".

    He said the situation in Iraq was a humanitarian catastrophe and security nightmare, which posed a direct threat to Australia.

    "While it seems a long, long way away, it is reaching out to us," he said.

    However, Australia would not follow Britain by increasing its terror threat level because of home-grown extremists.

    "Obviously we are constantly monitoring it," he said. 

    So far Australia has been involved only in dropping humanitarian supplies, such as energy biscuits and bottled water to Iraqis under threat from Islamic State militants.

    The United States has not asked Australia to take part in military airstrikes, but it is a request that could be made.

    Ms Bishop said on Monday that Australia could not shirk its obligation as part of the global coalition.

    "I believe Australia has a responsibility particularly given that there are Australians involved in fighting with ISIS, indeed I understand that there are Australians who figure prominently in the leadership of this barbaric terrorist organisation," she told the ABC.

    Labor backs the government's position, but the opposition's foreign affairs spokeswoman, Tanya Plibersek, said on Monday Labor would also support a parliamentary "discussion" on the intervention.

    "I think it is a good opportunity for the parliament sitting this week to discuss what's proposed of our involvement in Iraq, that doesn't mean necessarily having a vote," she said on Sydney radio 2UE.

    "It just means an opportunity for parliamentarians to put on the record their view about Australia's involvement in any humanitarian mission," Ms Plibersek said.

    But the Greens and Mr Wilkie want parliament to be given the power to approve or reject any Australian military action, not humanitarian aid.

    Mr Wilkie accused Mr Abbott of repeating former prime minister John Howard's mistake and described as "insane" the prime minister's power to unilaterally declare war.

    "Like many countries in the world we should make this matter for the parliament and not something that the prime minister acts on virtually unilaterally," he told ABC radio.

    "I mean that's how we got into this mess in the first place when John Howard declared war 11 years ago and here we have the new Liberal prime minister making the same mistake by declaring war on IS now.

    "This is all about representing the will of the people and not having a situation, which I think is an insane situation in Australia in 2014 that power to declare war still rests, virtually, with the prime minister alone."

    Greens deputy leader Adam Bandt called for a full parliamentary debate on military involvement in Iraq.

    "It seems when the United States says 'jump', Tony Abbott and Labor say 'how high?' " he told reporters in Canberra on Monday.

    "Where is the case that (military intervention) will somehow make Australia safer?'

    Mr Bandt said that horrific events were happening all over the world, but Australia did not intervene militarily in all of them.

    He said the case had to be made for why military force was the only option. "We have a very poor record picking sides in that part of the world and we're about to do it again," he said.

    Senator Xenophon said that while he supported the airlift, "at the very least" there should be a parliamentary debate on the involvement in Iraq.

    "I think it's important that if we follow the US we follow them after looking at all the facts," he told ABC radio on Monday.

    "In the United States troops cannot be deployed to war unless there's a vote of the congress, of both houses, that could be a model that we follow."

    Family First Senator Bob Day on Monday dismissed talk of a parliamentary debate.

    "I've got absolutely no reason to doubt that the government is handling this at the moment," Senator Day told ABC radio. "These are not exceptional circumstances. We've got quite some experience now in the Middle East."

    with AAP

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