Aussie troops could take a stronger role in the Middle East if the United States makes a swift exit from the region, Defence Minister Christopher Pyne has vowed.
Joining the Defence Minister on his first visit to the war-torn nation of Iraq, The Sunday Telegraph was given exclusive access to Australian troops who have spent the last four years training a new generation of Iraqi forces to protect their country of 40-million from terrorism and war which has dominated the country for decades.
During his visit, Mr Pyne reassured Middle Eastern leaders that Australia has “no intention of withdrawing from Iraq” where 600 troops have been based since 2014.
His comments come just weeks after US President Donald Trump unexpectedly announced American troops would withdraw from neighbouring Syria, claiming Islamic State had been defeated.
No timeline has been given for the Syrian exit, but the decision has sent shockwaves through the region where leaders are fearful a speedy retreat could lead to a resurgence of Islamic State.
At its peak, the terrorist group occupied a third of Iraq’s territory and still poses a threat, particularly on the border with Syria.
“If the Americans left within six months from Syria, the impact on Australians presence in Iraq would be significant,” Mr Pyne told The Sunday Telegraph
“Would we be and feel secure without the Americans being in Syria? If the answer to that questions was yes, then it would probably mean we would strengthen our position in Iraq and see out this job.”
Last year President Trump also directed the Pentagon to withdraw nearly half of the more than 14,000 US troops in Afghanistan. Following meetings with regional leaders, Mr Pyne called on the US to “clarify” its Middle East policy.
“There’s certainly concern among people I have spoken to that there is a lack of clarity around what the announcement by President Trump means,” he said.
“I think all US allies and members of the coalition in Afghanistan and Iraq would like clarity of what the United States policy means for us and for them.”
While Islamic State (ISIS) has lost significant territory in Iraq and Syria, the threat far from over. It has been about 18 months since Iraqi government troops reclaimed the northern city of Mosul, one of the largest urban area under ISIS control.
Many of those fighting in the bloody battlefields of northern Iraq had combat experience but no formal military training.
At the Taji military base 30 kilometres north west of Baghdad, Australian troops are working as part of a Coalition to reverse this backwards chronology so that the Iraqi “Jundi” (Arabic for soldiers) have basic training before entering combat zones.
Already 40,000 Iraqi troops have taken part in a 10-week course to better equip them to protect their country.
Anecdotally, Australian troops have earnt the respect of many of the Iraqi soldiers under their instruction. While Americans are often approached with scepticism due to the US invasion in 2003, Aussies are seen as a more neutral friend.
Former Canberra maths teacher Lieutenant Nicholas Buckland from the 1st Regiment, Royal Australian Artillery (RAA), is one of 238 Australian training students and instructors at the Baghdad Fighting School.
“For us, we want to fight, they have to fight,” Lt Buckland told The Sunday Telegraph.
“There experience is a lot higher than what there skill probably is, but once you build a relationship they are more than happy to learn.”
Brisbane-born Bombardier, Erich Jeffree said instructors are improving the standards among Iraqi government forces.
“You can definitely see the difference over the course that they run, the standard just improves exponentially,” he said.
“We are here to try and train up the Iraqi security force so that they can maintain security in their own country, and they are doing a really good job so far.”
Former real estate agent Manika Goode was looking for a lifestyle change when she signed up to the Army three years ago.
“I just wanted something that would be exciting,” she told The Sunday Telegraph from her current base in Iraq.
At 25, Lance Corporal Goode is one of about 20 women based at the Taji Military Complex just north of Baghdad. While women make up just eight per cent of the 238 Australians at the base, Lance Corporal Goode said she has never felt that gender was a barrier to her career.
“Everybody here has been really supportive and really helpful,” she said.
“I am here to do a job and whether you are female or male it doesn’t matter, there is no barrier”.
On the base, troops live in portable houses in the searing heat, surrounded by thick concrete walls in the middle of the dusty desert. In the winter temperatures regularly drop to zero and even the lightest rain can turn the dusty fields into thick mud.
Flying officer Cassie Collins, 29, joined the air force as a mechanic nine years ago looking for a change from her job collecting blood samples in Noosa.
“I grew up on a farm and wanted a role where I could tinker, with travel as well,” Ms Collins said. She is half way through her deployment in the Middle East where she works as an operations officer, co-ordinating emergency responses.
While she admits she has encounter threats during her deployment, she feels safe and well prepared for her important role. “I believe now there is way more support mechanisms in the military than there is in civilian life for my civilian friends who are nurses or school teachers,” Ms Collins said.
“Everyone has there struggles being in the military or not, but we are offered a lot of support.”
Nearby, Baghdad remains devastated by years of war but there are signs that life is returning to this broken city. The dangerous route from Baghdad airport to the Green Zone was once considered the most dangerous road in the world. Today, locals tend to the floral garden beds dotted between security checkpoints and roadblocks.
In one of the most significant signs of stability, Iraqi prime minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi has opened up parts of the Green Zone — a 10 square kilometre area in central Baghdad — which has been closed to most civilians for about 15 years.
But behind the cosmetic improvements and relative peace, Iraq is a broken nation damaged by decades of war and facing an ever-present threat of terrorism. President Trump has said he has no plans to withdraw American forces from Iraq but troop reductions in Syria and Afghanistan could have dire consequences for the battle-weary nation,
Australia will stay in Iraq “until the job we set out to do is done”, Mr Pyne said.
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