Australian aircraft to join coalition air strikes in Iraq

SYDNEY (AFP) - Australia's cabinet on Friday authorised the deployment of special forces and military air strikes to tackle the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, Prime Minister Tony Abbott said.

"Cabinet has authorised Australian air strikes in Iraq at the request of the Iraqi government and in support of the Iraqi government," Abbott said. "Also, subject to final legal documentation, cabinet has authorised the deployment of Australian special forces into Iraq to advise and assist Iraqi forces."

About 200 troops, including special forces soldiers, arrived in mid-September in the United Arab Emirates, a staging post for military operations into the region, as part of a 600-strong deployment as Australia geared up to join the US-led campaign.

They are backed by Australian air force aircraft, including F/A-18F Super Hornet jets, an E-7A Wedgetail Airborne Early Warning and Control aircraft, and a KC-30A multi-role tanker and transport aircraft.

The special forces were "not envisaged" to become directly involved in combat missions but would be "helping Iraqi forces with the planning and coordination of operations", Abbott stressed. He added that they would operate on a "much smaller scale" than their allied counterparts.

"The Americans certainly have quite a substantial special forces component on the ground already," Abbott said. "My understanding is that there are UK and Canadian special forces already inside Iraq, so we'll be operating on a much smaller scale but in an entirely comparable way to the United States special forces."

Some 1,600 US soldiers have been deployed to Iraq to support Iraqi forces with equipment, training and information, while Canada said last month it had sent dozens of special forces soldiers to the country to advise local personnel. Up to eight Australian Super Hornets were authorised to take part in the strikes, with six of the aircraft currently in the UAE, Australian Defence Force chief Mark Binskin said.

The announcement came days after Australian military jets took part in support missions over Iraq with the US-led international coalition.

To 'disrupt and degrade' ISIS

"It's very much in Australia's national interest that we do this useful work to disrupt and degrade" the ISIS at home and abroad," the prime minister added. "It could take quite some time, but we will know that we are succeeding when ISIL are in retreat, not in advance. We will know that we are succeeding when the Iraqi government is restoring a modicum of control over its own cities and towns," Abbott said, referring to the ISIS by its other name ISIL.

Abbott would not comment on whether his nation would consider taking part in US strikes against jihadists in Syria, saying he wanted to focus on "what's been done today rather than speculate on what might be done in months or years to come".

Canberra had already joined the US in an international effort to transport weapons to Kurdish forces fighting ISIS extremists in northern Iraq and conducted humanitarian air drops to besieged Iraqi towns.

Abbott refused to put a timeframe on Australia's involvement in Iraq. "I want to stress that only Iraq can defeat ISIL, but Iraq shouldn't be alone and as far as Australia and our allies are concerned, Iraq won't be alone," he said.

"I have to warn that this deployment to Iraq could be quite lengthy, certainly months rather than weeks. I want to reassure the Australian people that it will be as long as it needs to be, but as short as it possibly can be."