There's no "D-Day" around the Iraq deployment and it won't go ahead until satisfactory legal protections for the soldiers have been secured, Chief of Defence Force Tim Keating says.
The Government is to send a 143-strong deployment to train Iraqi soldiers in Taji, north of Baghdad.
Lieutenant General Keating appeared before Parliament's Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade committee this morning, where he faced questions about the deployment.
During the hearing, he told MPs the standard the Defence Force would like to aim for is a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA).
"But with the bureaucracy in that nation, it is too difficult to obtain; it won't stop us requesting our Government working on that, and I believe our Government is working on that," he said.
"However, underneath that there are a number of levels of immunity that would satisfy me that will allow people to operate safely within Iraq."
He was asked by the Green MP on the committee, Kennedy Graham, whether it was appropriate for soldiers to operate under diplomatic passports.
In response, he said soldiers "may well be going on official passports".
Talking to reporters afterwards, he said using official passports was "one of the strong options" for the deployment.
"If there was a SOFA we'd go under military ID cards - the difference between a diplomatic passport and an official passport, the immunities are basically the same, one is traditionally more used for diplomatic functions, traditionally."
Lieutenant General Keating said one bottom line for him would be that New Zealand led any investigations into incidents involving New Zealand soldiers in Iraq.
He said New Zealand soldiers would have to be able to act within the basic rules of engagement, ie the "inherent right of self defence".
He said there are a number of possible dates for a deployment and described the timeframe as "elastic".
When he made the announcement last month, Prime Minister John Key said that would likely happen in May.
Lieutenant General Keating said that was the date the Defence Force was working towards.
"But if I go to the Prime Minister and say look, I think my people need more training, or the immunities aren't in place, the Prime Minister's open.
"There isn't a D-Day here if you like."
He said the deployment would not go ahead until the arrangements for legal protections and immunities were settled.
Use of force not ruled out
Lieutenant General Keating said he was not going to rule out the use of force by New Zealand soldiers in self defence, either within Camp Taji, or outside its walls.
The Prime Minister has repeatedly said the operation will only be what he calls 'behind the wire'.
Lieutenant General Keating was asked whether New Zealand soldiers would be able to use force to defence themselves, outside the walls of Taji Camp.
"I can't guarantee that they could and they couldn't, I'm not going to speculate on a circumstance where a commander on the ground, what he deems necessary to protect himself.
"Can I see us going 10 kilometres outside Taji, no I can't, that's not a mission we're going to do."
Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee said the rules of engagement would of course cover self defence.
"If you were being fired at when you were not the aggressor, would you want to protect yourself, and the answer is yes and so what we would say simply is in a self-defence situation something that may occur - but it's not encouraged."
Mr Brownlee said he did think it was going to be feasible to reach an immunity agreement with Iraq, as it had been done by other countries.