Australia may offer ‘back-up’ to US forces in Iraq rescue

Defence Minister David Johnston has not ruled out providing back-up military assistance to the United States operation in Iraq. AAP/Alan Porritt

Defence Minister David Johnston has said Australia is “not ruling out providing some back-up assistance” to American military action against insurgents in Iraq.

Johnston today went further than Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who said Australia would expect this week to join the humanitarian airlifts to the Yazidi people stranded on Mount Sinjar in northern Iraq, should we be needed.

Speaking to the ABC, Johnston said Australia was ready to “slot in and bolt on” to the US humanitarian operation.

“At this stage we’re not involved in the kinetic side of the operation and I don’t believe that we have been requested to provide such support. It would take some time to get aircraft and other personnel into that theatre given that we’ve not had people in combat now for about eight or nine months coming out of Afghanistan.”

Asked whether Australia was not ruling out military involvement, Johnston said: “We’re not ruling out providing some back-up assistance to the Americans as they go in to deal kinetically with this terrorist organisation.

"This ISIL, Islamic State terrorist organisation, is to be extremely feared and taken with great seriousness.

"Who knows what the future holds with these people and accordingly we will assist in whatever way we can, should we be asked to assist by the Americans and the Iraqi government.

"Now the fact is that this could turn very, very nasty in a very short period of time, and anything is to be expected.

"I don’t believe right-minded countries can just sit back and watch atrocities unfold on their nightly television without taking some action.”

Some senior government sources played down Johnston’s comment about providing military back-up. Abbott will discuss the Iraq situation when he goes to London later this week and it will be a central topic at the AUSMIN talks in Sydney, attended by US Secretary of State John Kerry and Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel, which start tomorrow.

President Barack Obama has predicted that air strikes and the humanitarian effort could go for months.

Abbott, speaking from the Netherlands about the humanitarian exercise, told the ABC that Australia had some Hercules C-130 aircraft in the Middle East and a C-17 was bringing humanitarian supplies from Australia in the next day or so.

He had not spoke with President Obama, but recalled their discussion in Washington. At that time Abbott said he did not rule out potential Australian military involvement.

Abbott described the Islamic State as a terrorist army. “They seeking not just a terrorist enclave but effectively a terrorist state, a terrorist nation,” he said.

This posed extraordinary problems “not just for the people of the Middle East, but for the wider world and we see more and more evidence of just how barbaric this particular entity is”. He pointed to the picture of a boy, believed to be Australian Khaled Sharrouf’s son, holding the severed head of a soldier in Syria. The picture was widely published after being posted on Twitter.

Opposition leader Bill Shorten backed Australia having a role in humanitarian help but said there had been no discussion by the government with Labor of anything beyond that.

Abbott today also foreshadowed Australia imposing tougher sanctions against Russia in the wake of the downing of flight MH17 and its aftermath. “I think the world is looking at tougher sanctions, but we certainly would anticipate tougher sanctions against Russia in the weeks ahead.” The EU and the US recently brought in new sanctions but Australia did not, because of the efforts to retrieve remains from the site.