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London: Australian combat forces could return to Iraq under plans being discussed with our allies, Prime Minister Tony Abbott said in London overnight.
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Minister not ruling anything in or out on Iraq
Australia's mission in Iraq is humanitarian, but Defence Minister David Johnston won't rule further action out.
However, Mr Abbott took pains to emphasise it would be a limited mission to “prevent genocide” – not on a scale comparable to previous military action in the country.
“This is a fundamentally humanitarian mission designed to protect innocent men, women and children from the murderous hordes that currently confront them,” Mr Abbott said, after a day spent in discussion with British defence and intelligence chiefs.
Tens of thousands of refugees, mostly from the Yazidi sect, are trapped on Mount Sinjar in Iraq’s north, having fled there after Islamic State (also known as Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL) fighters delivered an ultimatum to convert to Islam or die.
They are trapped without food or water and human rights experts have warned of the potential for genocide within days.
“There is a darkening situation in the Middle East, in particular northern Iraq,” Mr Abbott said. “There is a continuing humanitarian catastrophe in and around Mount Sinjar.
“The murderous hordes of ISIL, now the Islamic State are on the march.”
ISIL had been crucifying, decapitating and summarily executing men, women and children, Mr Abbott said.
Australian C-130 aircraft based at al-Minhad near Dubai will begin dropping aid packages to the Mount Sinjar region before the end of the week.
Australia is consulting with its partners including the US and Britain about what further assistance it could provide, Mr Abbott said – including protection of those on the mountain from the Islamic State fighters.
Australia will “provide what assistance we reasonably can to protect the people who are at risk not just from the elements, from starvation, from dehydration, from exposure on Mount Sinjar - but also who are at risk from ISIL forces”, Mr Abbott said.
“We have seen over the last few months murderous intent … towards everyone who does not submit. Plainly, as President Obama has pointed out, this is potential genocide.
“We should do what we can to protect people from potential genocide … No one wants to stand aside in the face of a potential genocide.”
Asked if that could include military action, Mr Abbott said “we certainly don’t rule that out”.
“We are talking to our … security partners about what we can usefully do to help.”
Mr Abbott said he could not go into details of what military support had been requested from Australia, or what he had offerred.
“These are ongoing discussions,” he said. “Australia is not without capacity and we want to use the capacity we have for good.”
However, he stressed that this was a humanitarian cause, with the aim of protecting people from murder at the hands of ISIL terrorists – it did not have a “geopolitical objective”.
“There is a world of difference between getting involved to prevent genocide and the kind of involvement we have seen in recent years by Western countries in the Middle East. Just a world of difference and no one should conflate the two.”
He did not go into detail on whether the action would be air-based, or include troops on the ground.
“We are in discussion with our partners and allies,” he said.
Most of Australia’s troops left Iraq when combat operations ended in 2008, though some military officers remained several years longer as advisers and providing embassy security.
Australian troops withdrew from Afghanistan at the end of 2013.
Labor's foreign affairs spokeswoman Tanya Plibersek said on Wednesday that Australia should be providing more aid money to strife-torn Iraq and criticised a decision to axe aid to Iraq in May’s budget.
‘‘It’s a shocking thing to realise that last year we gave $7.7 million in overseas development assistance aid to Iraq,’’ Ms Plibersek told ABC radio on Wednesday.
‘‘Australia has the capacity to do much more for the people of Iraq.’’
In June Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop announced $5 million in aid for those fleeing ISIL.
On Tuesday, Mr Abbott met Brtiain's Joint Intelligence Committee, which oversees the country’s intelligence agencies and briefs the government, and held talks with the British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond and Defence Secretary Michael Fallon. He also spoke with PM David Cameron – who is on holiday – over the phone.
Mr Abbott said there was no higher priority for his government than the safety of the Australian people “in a difficult and dangerous world”.
“We want to do everything we can to counter terrorism at home and abroad,” Mr Abbott said. “That means doing what we usefully can to help people who are threatened by terrorist activity whether it be in northern Iraq or whether it be on the streets of London or on the streets of Sydney.”
He said this motivated Australia’s work in Ukraine, his government’s new anti-terror legislation, and his own trip to Britain.
“What happens in Syria and Iraq doesn’t happen in isolation,” he said. “What happens in these countries does have ramifications in Australia, in Britain and around the world.”
He said the image of an Australian seven-year-old in Syria waving a severed head “as if it was a showbag at the Easter Show” was a hideous, gruesome image that “indicates the mentality of the people who are fighting with the Islamic State and the other terrorist groups in the Middle East”.
“It is absolutely essential that we do whatever we reasonably can to ensure that the Australian community is safe form people who have been radicalised, militarised, brutalised by the experience of engaging in terrorist activities in the Middle East,” he said.
Mr Abbott said that this security focus was behind new customs and intelligence measures, including upcoming legislation making it easier to prosecute and jail people who engaged in terrorist activity abroad.
It was also part of the push to retain internet metadata.
Asked about Russia’s proposed '‘humanitarian'’ mission to Eastern Ukraine, Mr Abbott said “we should be sceptical of Russia’s intentions… all of us are in favour of humanitarian assistance but no one wants to see what is effectively an invasion under cover of a humanitarian convoy”.