Australia has said it will send a further 300 troops to help train the Iraqi army as it takes on "Islamic State" militants. Meanwhile, Iraqi forces have launched an assault on the Islamists in the city of Tikrit.
Australia is already involved in air strikes against IS, but the new ground troops would have no combat role
Prime Minister Tony Abbott on Tuesday announced the deployment of the 300 soldiers to the Taji military base, north of Baghdad.
The decision comes after New Zealand said it would send more than 140 soldiers to the base in a non-combat role to help boost the capabilities of the Iraqi military.
Abbott, who met his Wellington counterpart for talks last week, said the decision followed a formal request from both the Iraqi and US governments. Australia already has 170 special troops in Iraq, who are already advising and assisting the Iraqi army.
The prime minister said the deployment would have no role in combat against "Islamic State" (IS), which swept through much of northern Iraq's Sunni heartland in June last year, largely unopposed by the Iraqi regular army.
"We don't expect to be doing the Iraqi's fighting for them," said Abbott. "This is a training mission, not a combat mission. Nevertheless, it is a mission which is necessary, because obviously in the face of the initial death cult onslaught, the Iraqi regular army melted like snow in summer."
"That's been a disaster for the people of Iraq, millions of whom now live in a new dark age."
Battle for Tikrit under way
Canberra's move came as some 30,000 Iraqi troops and militia launched an assault on IS militants in and around Tikrit. The offensive is the biggest yet by the Iraqi army against IS since its rise last year. The attack has been planned as a step towards the liberation of Mosul, the largest city within IS's self-declared caliphate that covers a large swathe of Iraq and Syria.
There were initial reports that the Iraqi troops had retaken some areas near the city, but these remained unconfirmed on Tuesday morning. Dozens of Australians are believed to be fighting for IS and other Islamist organizations. Abbott has warned of a long era of heightened threats from "home-grown" extremists and announced new security measures.
rc/bk (AFP, AP, Reuters)