7 Oct 2015

New Zealand's 15-year role in Iraq

5:09 pm on 7 October 2015

As the Prime Minister returns from a rare visit to Iraq, Radio New Zealand takes a look back at the recent history of NZ's deployment to the war-torn nation.

John Key talks with Iraqi troops and New Zealand trainers.

John Key talks with Iraqi troops and New Zealand trainers during this week's visit. Photo: Pool Picture

New Zealand has deployed military personnel to Iraq twice in the past 15 years, but not in a combat role.

The first was under former prime minister Helen Clark in 2003, who refused to send forces to fight in the operation spearheaded by then United States President George Bush but not sanctioned by the United Nations.

She did, however, agree to send 61 troops including 35 New Zealand Army engineers to help with reconstruction efforts in September 2003.

The current deployment is a joint training mission with Australia, as part of a coalition with more than 60 countries led by the United States and the United Kingdom.

One hundred and six New Zealanders are based at Taji Camp, north of Baghdad, with a further 37 stationed in coalition headquarters and key logistical positions in Baghdad and other undisclosed locations.

A New Zealand Defence Force protection soldier observes ISF troops. Iraq 2015

An NZDF protection soldier observes Iraqi troops earlier in 2015. Photo: New Zealand Defence Force

The training team is 16-strong, with the rest of the troops there to provide logistics support and force protection.

The SAS will be there on occasion to provide particular advice and to cover special visits.

The New Zealand troops are training Iraqi security forces to be better equipped to fight Islamic State (IS), which controls territory in Syria and Iraq.

The training includes basic weapons skills, military skills for combat operations, planning for operations, and medical and logistical support.

The deployment, which started in April, has been has been set down for two years, with a review after nine months. Prime Minister John Key said he had no plan to change that timetable. It is estimated to cost about $63 million.

Feet on the ground in Afghanistan

The other major military deployment New Zealand has had in the region was Afghanistan in 2001.

It was part of a global response to the September 11 attacks in the United States.

Defence Force soldiers in Afghanistan's Bamyan province in 2013.

New Zealand Defence Force soldiers in Afghanistan's Bamyan province in 2013. Photo: NZ DEFENCE FORCE

More than 3500 personnel would end up serving in Afghanistan, most in the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Bamyan, and there were also four separate SAS deployments.

Ten members of the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) died over the course of that deployment, all during the three years before final rotation of the PRT in April 2013.

A small number of NZDF personnel remain in Afghanistan with the National Army Academy and at ISAF headquarters.

New Zealand SAS troops also fought alongside the Afghanistan police crisis response unit.

While that was primarily supposed to be a mentoring role, two of the New Zealand fatalities - SAS Lance Corporal Leon Smith and Corporal Douglas Grant - were killed in separate incidents, while working with the unit.

Controversial deployments

Both Mr Key and Ms Clark courted controversy with their decisions to deploy New Zealand troops.

Ms Clark resisted pressure from the US to put fighting forces on the ground in Iraq in the early 2000s, but did commit to the Afghanistan mission as she believed it was legally and morally justified.

That decision would cause friction with Labour support partner Alliance and Ms Clark called an early election in 2002 because of potential instability.

Mr Key has strongly argued for the 2015 mission to Iraq, which comes just a few years after the conclusion of the commitment in Afghanistan.

To help neutralise any public opposition the government has stipulated it is a non-combat mission, and insisted it will be "behind the wire".

A New Zealand Defence Force trainer instructs ISF soldiers in correct weapons firing positions. Iraq - 2015

A NZDF trainer instructs Iraqi soldiers in correct weapons-firing positions. Photo: New Zealand Defence Force

The government said that included not going to the aid of Iraqi security forces if they got into trouble nearby.

But the Defence Force noted the mission was not without risk, so personnel were armed and could use force for self-defence if needed.

The Cabinet was told the main risks were insider attacks, direct attacks on the base by insurgents and indirect fire.

Another important aspect of the deployment was the legal protection New Zealander personnel would have if they killed someone in Iraq, while serving on the mission.

So-called Status of Forces deals have been used by countries such as the US to give soldiers full legal immunity from prosecution.

Iraq was not willing to sign a formal Status of Forces agreement for New Zealand but agreed New Zealand soldiers would travel on official passports, giving them a certain amount of legal protection, while they are serving on the training mission.

A New Zealand Defence Force trainer instructs ISF soldiers in correct weapons firing positions. Iraq 2015

The main risks to New Zealand troops in Iraq were expected to be insider attacks, direct attacks on the base by insurgents and indirect fire. Photo: New Zealand Defence Force

A Cabinet paper from February this year said IS "represented a multi-dimensional threat to international peace and security, including to New Zealand and New Zealand's interests".

It said the deployment was in direct response to a request for assistance made by the government of Iraq.

Briefing papers also described IS as "well-financed and well-armed" and noted 12,000 to 15,000 of IS' fighters in Syria and Iraq were foreign fighters, including 3000 with Western passports.

The paper said there was a low risk of "violent extremism or terrorist acts being carried out in New Zealand", but there were risks from foreign fighters returning home and a general risk to New Zealanders travelling or living overseas.

In June more than 700 soldiers from Iraq's 76th Brigade were the first group to march out from an eight-week training programme and 2100 soldiers have been trained by New Zealand and Australia so far.

The joint training mission also trains non-commissioned officers and medics.

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