Some Australian special forces have entered Iraq but more than half the contingent is still to do so.
As US president Barack Obama said on Monday he was having conversations with Australia and other Coalition partners about how they could “supplement” the expanded American effort in a “slightly different phase” of the conflict against Islamic State, Abbott told their joint news conference Australia’s current priority was getting its special forces into Baghdad and then into the field on their advise and assist mission.
“That’s happening and I’m confident that our people will do good work,” Abbott said after his bilateral meeting with Obama on the margins of APEC in Beijing.
Currently fewer than half the Australian special forces are in Iraq, where they are preparing for their role. The rest are expected to enter in the next couple of weeks.
The delay in organising their entry with the Iraqis has deeply frustrated the Australian government.
Obama repeated the message he gave before leaving the US – that the conflict was moving to a different phase after the initial goal of stopping the momentum of Islamic State as it was sweeping through Iraq.
This next phase was “for us to train and assist Iraqi security forces” so they could build up and go on the offensive against Islamic State.
“We can provide close air support, logistics and intelligence but ultimately they’re the ones who will have to fight to push ISIL [Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant] out of some of these areas that they’ve taken over.”
This needed more trainers on the ground, Obama said. He has ordered the deployment of another 1500 American troops. He stressed that “what hasn’t changed is that it’s not our folks who are going to be doing the fighting. Iraqis ultimately have to fight ISIL”.
There was a need to ramp up not only the capabilities of the Iraqi security forces but also that of some of the tribes in western Iraq who had shown a willingness to go against ISIL but were outgunned and too often out manoeuvred at this stage.
“I recognise that the United States as one member of the Coalition has some unique capabilities in setting up the template, setting up the structure for that training,” he said.
“As we are setting that up, I am having conversations with Australia, and other Coalition partners that are already committed to putting trainers in to see how they can supplement and work with us in the overall effort.
"But the key point that I emphasised to Tony and I’m emphasising to all our Coalition members is our task here is to help Iraqis help themselves.”
“The principle that we are not engaged in direct combat – that continues,” Obama said.
Earlier Abbott adopted soft language ahead of his meeting with Russian president Vladimir Putin tomorrow.
“Russia has said that it will do everything to bring the perpetrators [of the MH17 downing] to justice. Good on Russia for saying that and I will just be looking for an assurance from the president that what they said then, they meant, and what they said then is still what they say now.”