Australia to deliver arms in Iraq
Tony Abbott has agreed to a United States government request for Australia to transport military equipment on the Royal Australian Air Force C-130J Hercules and C-17A Globemaster aircraft.PT0M0S 620 349
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Elite SAS soldiers will fly on the RAAF transport planes to provide protection to the crew when they land in coming days in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq to deliver arms and munitions.
Fairfax Media understands that the special forces troops are currently at Al Minhad Air Base in the United Arab Emirates and will be on board the C-130 and C-17 planes in the event that an emergency exit – known as a "hot extraction" – is needed.
It is also understood the SAS could in future be stationed on the ground in Iraq if Australia joins any air strike campaign against the Islamic State militants wreaking terror through the country's north. They would be there to find and rescue pilots and crews in the event that a RAAF plane is shot down, rather than for combat missions.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott and the Chief of the Defence Force, Air Chief Marshal Mark Binskin, confirmed on Sunday that Australia would deliver light infantry weapons and ammunition as part of a US-led effort to bolster the Kurdish Peshmerga forces who are battling Islamic State fighters (formerly known as ISIL).
"We've seen beheadings, crucifixions, mass executions," Mr Abbott said. "The situation remains severe and it will remain severe as long as the ISIL movement retains control over large swathes of northern and western Iraq and parts of eastern Syria.
Air Chief Marshal Mark Binskin, left, with Prime Minister Tony Abbott. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
"While we understandably shrink from reaching out to these conflicts, the truth is that these conflicts reach out to us."
The deliveries – an escalation of Australia's involvement in the campaign to stop the brutal militant group – were requested by Washington and will involve other countries including the US, Britain, Canada, France and Italy.
Air Marshal Binskin said the RAAF transport planes would land in the Kurdish city of Erbil and that Australia would ensure the supplies are delivered to the right hands. The city lies less than 100 kilometres from Islamic State-controlled territory including its stronghold, the city of Mosul.
"We want to make sure that we know where the arms go and the munitions go when we deliver them," he said. "So at this stage they won't be airdropped – we'll be landing and handing them over to officials from the Peshmerga."
RAAF aircraft have also resumed taking part in humanitarian air drops of food and other supplies to Iraqis who have been cut off by the Islamic State's onslaught.
Air Marshal Binskin also revealed that just after 10:30am Melbourne time on Sunday, a RAAF C-130 dropped 15 pallets of food, water and hygiene packs to the besieged town of Amirli, while the US carried out nearby air strikes to beat back the militants.
He said such flights were at risk of possible anti-aircraft fire from the Islamic State but this mission had been carried out successfully.
"They do have anti-aircraft weapons with anti-aircraft artillery...So we're very conscious of that when we're planning and conducting these missions to make sure that we minimise the risk to our aircrew when we go in and drop."
He thanked the crews, stressing that these were "not easy missions", lasting seven to nine hours.
Mr Abbott said Australia would help with further humanitarian drops as needed.
The Prime Minister continued to leave open the possibility of Australia's taking part in air strikes, saying that no request had come from Washington but adding that "I don't say no request might be forthcoming".
Fairfax Media has been told that if RAAF planes do take part in air strikes, a number of Australian special forces troops could be stationed in the country to carry out search-and-rescue missions if any Australian plane is shot down. Such a deployment would likely be limited, however, and would be part of a broader US-led operation.
Asked whether he was concerned about the arms the RAAF delivers falling into the hands of Kurdish militants from the PKK – a banned terrorist organisation in Australia – Mr Abbott said the Kurdish government had assured the US and others that the weapons will be used by the Peshmerga.
Air Marshal Binskin added: "The greater risk here is actually doing nothing to be honest with you."