Defence Minister Ron Mark has just completed his first inspection of Taji Base near Baghdad where Kiwis and Australians are training Iraqi security forces, whom he has previously called “cowards.”
Mark’s visit will feed into the Government ongoing assessment as to whether to agree to an Australian request to renew the mission’s mandate beyond November this year.
He was accompanied by Justice Minister Andrew Little and National MP Simon O’Connor, who chairs Parliament’s foreign affairs and defence select committee and said he wanted to increase bibartishanship on defence and security issues.
“New Zealand is pleased to be doing our part in support Iraq in the fight against the global threat of Isis,” Mark said from Dubai.
“They are all doing us proud.”
In Iraq he met Iraqi Prime Minister Haider as-Abadi, Defence Minister Erfan al-Hayali, and the Commander of the Combined Joint Task Forces Land Component, Major General Robert White.
He also visited Afghanistan at the weekend where 11 New Zealand Force personnel are deployed as mentors and support personnel to the Afghanistan National Army Officer Academy.
Mark, himself a former soldier, is about to head to a meeting of defence ministers in Rome focused on defeating ISIS and then a Nato defence ministers meeting in Brussels later in the week.
Public focus has turned to the mission in Iraq initially because of the request by Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop at the weekend for a further commitment from New Zealand to the mission.
But Human rights campaigner Harmeet Sooden is also reported on Stuff as saying that the previous Government had quietly changed the mission’s training mandate to provide “advise and assist support to the Iraqi Army’s North Baghdad Operations Command”.
He also said the Government had quietly approved base from which it could assist Iraqi forces, Qayyarah West Airfield, 60 km south of Mosul, and which it did not publicise.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told reporters at Parliament the training role had been expanded to a mentoring role within the training camps in which New Zealand had been authorised to operate.
She had also been advised that the base close to Mosul had been approved but it had not been announced for security reasons and it had, in fact, not been used by the New Zealanders.
“I am quick to say that I haven’t necessarily received the full information that the last Government received when they made their decisions, which were ultimately their decisions,” Ardern said.
She also confirmed the claim by Sooden that New Zealand soldiers have been collecting biometric information of Iraqi trainees. She had been advised it was standard practice for all coalition forces as a security measure for those doing the training.
Ardern said that in terms of extending the mandate it was important to make the decision in the context including elections in Iraq (in May) that could change the environment.
“I want to make sure that we make the decision at the time with all of the information around the current role we are playing, what’s required but ultimately a decision in the best interests of New Zealand.”
Labour, New Zealand First and Greens all opposed the deployment of about 110 (and 300 Australian personnel) New Zealand Defence Force personnel which began in May 2015.
Ron Mark was questioning former Prime Minister John Key when he said the Iraqi forces had appeared to lack the will to fight and had given up Ramadi despite outnumbering Isis. “Does he not realise you can’t train cowards to fight?”
The Anzac mission has trained 30,000 Iraqi forces, many of whom have gone on to recapture areas of Iraq held by Isis, including Mosul.
Meanwhile, Ardern said that Labour’s promise to hold an inquiry into the allegations in the book Hit and Run by Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson was in the hands of Attorney General David Parker.
The book alleged that New Zealand troops were involved in war crimes during a raid in a remote part of Afghanistan in 2010.