"Should the control of this group be consolidated we are faced with a situation of a terrorist state": Prime Minister Tony Abbott. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
Australia's elite SAS soldiers are ready to swoop into Baghdad to rescue diplomats if the bloody fighting in Iraq's north reaches the capital, Fairfax Media has learnt.
It is also understood that Australia could fly P-3 Orion surveillance plane missions as part of a broader US-led effort to beat back the jihadist forces that have cut a swathe through Iraq's north, though Washington had made no request as of Monday night.
Fairfax Media understands that the SAS would be deployed if security in Baghdad deteriorated to the extent that staff could not be removed safely without the protection of the special forces.
SAS on alert for rescue mission: Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop and Prime Minister Tony Abbott. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
The Perth-based SAS have been used this way before, notably to evacuate diplomats from East Timor in 1999.
Amid fears that apparent massacres carried out by Sunni militants against Shiite soldiers could fuel a broader sectarian war, Prime Minister Tony Abbott warned on Monday that a full-blown ''terrorist state'' could emerge if the militants consolidated their power in the north and west.
Mr Abbott told Parliament that the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) were carrying out ''extraordinary brutality towards surrendering Iraqi soldiers and policemen'' - a reference to pictures posted online appearing to show the extremists executing Iraqi security force members en masse.
Australia offers spy planes: Volunteers are transported to join Iraqi security forces in fight against Sunni militants. Photo: AFP
''Not only is it a humanitarian disaster for the people in those sections of Iraq, it is a security disaster for the Middle East and also for the wider world,'' Mr Abbott said.
''Should the control of this group be consolidated we are faced with a situation of a terrorist state.''
Greg Barton, of Monash University's Global Terrorism Research Centre, said Australians previously fighting with ISIL in Syria had likely crossed the border
and were now with the group in Iraq. Up to 200 Australians are believed to have travelled to Syria to fight, and many of them are understood to have joined ISIL.
''I imagine it's only a matter of time [before Australians fight in Iraq with ISIL]'', he said.
Defence Minister David Johnston on Monday reiterated the government's position that Australia would not put ''boots on the ground'' in Iraq and said any involvement would likely come in the form of providing intelligence.
Staffing at the Australian embassy in Baghdad has been slimmed down, with non-essential staff pulled out.
Senator Johnston said that no decision had been made about further evacuations and that, for now, Baghdad appeared to be out of reach of ISIL.
''There may not be a requirement to evacuate anybody,'' he said. ''The last information I have is that Baghdad is secure but we are watching very, very closely and making contingency plans.''
But a Defence source later said it was ''prudent to plan for the worst-case scenario'' and therefore the SAS were standing ready.
Fairfax Media understands that P-3 Orions - which are primarily maritime surveillance but can be used over land - are among the options that the government is considering, though any decision depends on what Washington needs.
Former chief of army Peter Leahy, now director of the National Security Institute at the University of Canberra, said the planes would be a good fit for providing surveillance of ISIL's movements.
''The P-3s we've been using them over land in Afghanistan and over Iraq for the last decade and they're quite useful … for observing the movements of troops,'' he said.
Aerial surveillance could be used to help guide any US air strikes.
Senator Johnston added that Australia and the US needed to ''let the dust settle for a few days'' to see how the Iraqi government itself was handling the problem.
But he also said that ''we'll see the response in the next few days''.