Australia cuts troops to Iraq in landmark move
Australia has cut the size of its latest military deployment to Iraq by more than half with a "landmark" decision to pull back from its commitment in the embattled country to hand back the training responsibility to combat ISIS to local forces.
The move follows in the steps of the United States which last month also withdrew troops from some aspects of its Middle East war commitment, notably in Syria.
The 10th rotation of the Task Group Taji left Darwin today but in a surprise announcement Defence Minister Linda Reynolds said it would be half the size of previous forces since the first Taji deployment in 2014.
In August the Kiwi Defence Minister Ron Mark announced his troops would be drawn down and without his forces so too Australia's would have to reduce its commitment to the joint venture but he later immediately claimed the premature slip was because he was tired and he had misspoke and withdrew his remarks.
Senator Reynolds said yesterday the Iraqi Security Forces' training would be largely delivered by their own leaders now and the latest Australian Defence Force and New Zealand troop rotation would provide mainly just a mentoring role.
Previous deployments had seen Australia take a critical leading role in all aspects of training to rebuild the Iraqi military from the ground up.
"The ADF has made significant progress in enhancing the capabilities of the ISF to defeat Daesh (ISIS)," the defence minister said.
"The ADF's local partner, the Iraqi School of Infantry Non-Commissioned Officer II, is ready to deliver most of its training without the assistance of Coalition partners."
The deployment would be reduced from the current 250 personnel to 120.
The combined Taskgroup normally has up to 300 ADF troops drawn largely from the Australian Army's 3rd Brigade working with 110 NZ Defence personnel. It was to end in 2017 but was extended and is reviewed regularly.
Senator Reynolds described the move as a landmark decision as she thanked the more than 2500 service men and women who have previously served in Taji, the base north west of capital Baghdad, under the successful Operation Okra mission.
"Together with New Zealand, Australia has trained more than 45,000 members of the ISF who have played an important role in combating Daesh in Iraq, and I was proud to see their work first-hand on my recent visit to Taji," she said.
Senator Reynolds hastened to add that Australia was still committed to the US-led coalition to combat ISIS and would continue to do so to ensure the terror group did not "reconstitute".
Other elements of Operation OKRA, including Australia's support to the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service and the contribution of Australian air assets would continue their operational activities for the duration of their deployment. It was not clear what will happen to them at the end of that deployment.