Prime Minister Tony Abbott speaks to the media at the Headquarters of Joint Operations Command near Canberra on Friday. Photo: Andrew MearesThe security situation in Iraq “remains perilous” and Australia is still discussing with international partners how it can further help the strife-torn country, Prime Minister Tony Abbott has warned.
After humanitarian air drops to stranded Yazidi refugees on Mount Sinjar were put on hold because they appeared no longer to be needed, Mr Abbott warned that Australia and its allies were still looking at what needs to be done “to counter the … menace” of the brutal Islamic State group.
The Pentagon’s press secretary, Rear Admiral John Kirby, said overnight Australian time that a ground team of US special forces had established there were between 4000 and 5000 members of the Yazidi sect on Mount Sinjar and only about half of them were actually refugees.
This is a fraction of the tens of thousands of Yazidis previously thought to be hiding on the mountain from the Islamic State – previously known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant or ISIL.
The Prime Minister, fresh back from a trip to Europe and the Middle East that included discussions with senior British officials about Iraq, said despite the apparent reprieve, the radical Islamist fighters remained a serious “menace”.
“The situation in Mount Sinjar itself has somewhat eased, but the overall security situation in Iraq remains perilous,” he said. “While I certainly don’t envisage Australian combat troops in Iraq, we are consulting with our allies and partners on what Australia can usefully contribute to try to ensure that the situation in the Middle East … improves rather than deteriorates.”
Mr Abbott refused to specify what, if any, further military action Australia was considering, and appeared to soften his previous stance in which he pointedly refused during a press conference in London to rule out further military involvement.
Asked whether Australia might consider a limited troop deployment for a humanitarian mission – say if large numbers of refugees again came under threat – Mr Abbott refused to answer directly but said Australia would continue to uphold its humanitarian principles.
“I’m not going to get into the business of ruling this in or that out,” he said. “I don’t envisage the use of combat troops on the ground, but certainly I want Australian operations to be effective in terms of supporting our humanitarian ideals and obviously our humanitarian ideals have been deeply in risk in recent weeks because of the murderous advance of ISIL forces in northern Iraq and elsewhere.”
The Prime Minister added that the looming ascension of Haider al-Abadi as Iraq’s new prime minister in place of the divisive Nouri al-Maliki was “very encouraging” and added that the new leader’s challenge was to create an inclusive government that treated all Iraqi sects equally.
On the matter of a 19-year-old Australian jihadist who reportedly slipped through an Australian airport on his brother’s passport before he was arrested in the United Arab Emirates, Mr Abbott said: “Plainly I’m not happy about this, although I am pleased that the individual in question did arouse concerns on departing Australia … and the individual was arrested in the UAE.”
He said it was “not good enough” but that the government was spending an additional $630 million on national security over the next four years, including biometric screening at airports.
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