The first of 140 New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) personnel will deploy to Iraq today as part of a joint training contingent with the Australian defence force.
More NZDF personnel will arrive in Iraq over the next three weeks alongside a total of 330 Australian troops. The joint force is scheduled to be operational in the country by the middle of May.
The troops will be based at Taji military complex 40 kilometres north of Baghdad and will conduct training programmes with Iraqi security forces. Both Australian and New Zealand defence personnel will not be involved with combat operations, according to information released by the two governments.
Australian prime minister Tony Abbott reiterated the intent of the joint training mission in a media briefing recently saying, “We won't have a combat role. It's a training mission, not a combat mission.” The joint mission will help prepare Iraqi security forces to arrest the advance of militant group Islamic State (IS) and recapture cities presently under the group’s control.
“What we hope to have achieved within two years is to help train an effective Iraqi regular army that is at the disposal of the legitimate government of Iraq,” Mr Abbott says. Planned for an initial commitment of 12 months, the joint mission will be reviewed in May 2016 before the two governments decide whether to extend the mission.
There has been no indication Australia and New Zealand will expand its military’s responsibilities to encompass combat roles or conduct intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) missions in support of coalition operations. With the NZDF and Australian forces on the ground, the total members of the coalition halting IS attacks in Iraq reaches more than 60. Hungary also confirmed today that it would send 150 troops to a military training camp in the Kurdish capital city Arbil.
The joint training mission enters the Iraq conflict at a difficult moment. The Iraqi security forces recently succeeded in recapturing the city of Tikrit. However, regime forces suffered high casualties in a tough battle for the city and exposed significant weaknesses in the government’s fighting capability.
But today is also big day for Iraq in Washington. Iraqi prime minister Haider al Abadi is in the US capital this week on his first visit to the country since entering office. Mr al Abadi secured an extra $US200 million in humanitarian aid from the US, although US President Barack Obama says the funds do not include military assistance. Mr al Abadi is expected to continue lobbying for military equipment including unarmed surveillance drones, Apache attack helicopters and ammunition.
In Iraq, fighting continues. Security forces made a hasty tactical retreat from the Albu Faraj area north of Ramadi following heavy fighting with IS militants. The Islamic State also breached the perimeter of Iraq’s largest oil refinery in Beiji yesterday. According to reports, the attack was the most violent on the refinery to date. German intelligence reports meanwhile announced on April 8 that IS has lost control of all its captured oil fields except one. The group will struggle to supply sufficient water and electricity to captured regions and towns it controls without the oil resources.
The recent recapture of one of Iraq’s largest cities, Tikrit, was a long and slow process for Iraq’s security forces and showed both how difficult the larger future fight against IS will be and the limits of the Iraqi state’s power.
Fighting in the city was made more difficult as IS militants dug into the city centre, barricading its defensive positions with hundreds of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) to slow the government’s advance. Quick gains were made in the first few weeks of the battle as security forces entered the city but, until US precision airstrikes were requested, the army could not break through well-formed IS defences. This shows the Iraqi army still struggles with the consequences from its collapse in 2014 causing serious loss of morale and manpower.
Another complicating military factor is the disparate fighting groups involved in the Tikrit operation. The mission was the first time Sunni tribespeople, Iraqi security forces, Shiite tribespeople and Iranian troops and advisers were involved in the same operation. All groups are focused on the same goal of pushing IS militants back but each has differing loyalties, leading to shifting allegiances and difficulties in organising a coherent offensive.
Those allegiances broke down during the final part of the Tikrit campaign when most of the Shiite militias refused to participate at all when the US airstrike campaign began. Only a fraction of the Shiite militias returned to fight once the bombing ceased.
Despite the clear limits in the Iraqi government's coherency and military capacity, the Tikrit operation also showed how frail the IS group can be in pitched combat. The group is well-versed in unconventional warfare but being forced to defend itself on equal terms against conventional forces has proven deadly for IS fighters.
The lessons learned in Tikrit by Iraqi security forces will be applied in upcoming battles for Mosul, Fallujah and Ramadi. Some indications suggest the Mosul campaign may begin before June this year but the Iraqi government is likely to reassess this timeline and take greater care with future operations. Both sides have shown serious fragility and the joint training mission by New Zealand and Australia will be a small but significant part of preparing Iraqi security forces for the long fight against IS ahead.