Australia in Iraq: A brief history of Australia's involvement from 1991-2014

Australia in Iraq: A brief history of Australia's involvement from 1991-2014

Australia in Iraq: A brief history of Australia's involvement from 1991-2014

Updated 15 September 2014, 17:10 AEST

International correspondent Mark Corcoran examines Australia's history of involvement in Iraq.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott has announced that 600 military personnel and 10 aircraft are bound for the Middle East to prepare for military action against the Islamic State (IS).

Included is a special forces contingent that the Prime Minister said "could act as military advisers to the Iraqi armed forces or the (Kurdish) Peshmerga".

But this will be not the first time Australian boots touch the ground in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Twenty-three years ago, 75 Australian troops were deployed to northern Iraq to provide medical and humanitarian assistance as the Kurds fought for survival amid the upheaval that had followed the defeat of Saddam Hussein's forces in the 1990-91 Gulf War.

In August 1990, Saddam invaded his oil-rich neighbour Kuwait. In response Australia joined a vast US-led multi-national military coalition, and after one month of air strikes and a four-day ground war, Kuwait was liberated and the Iraqi forces routed.

It was a swift victory – but one that carried unexpected consequences.

Emboldened by a spectacular defeat of the Iraqi military, the Shia in the south and Kurds in the north rose up in revolt against Saddam's forces, fully expecting military support from the Coalition.

Within weeks the vaunted Kurdish guerrilla fighters, the Peshmerga - which translates as "those who confront death" - controlled the three provinces that now form the Kurdish Autonomous Region, and the oil rich Kirkuk, a city they regard as their cultural capital.

Having swiftly liberated Kuwait, with relatively few casualties, the US-led coalition of 1991 had no desire to get bogged down in a full-scale invasion of Iraq, nor the quagmire of Iraq's brutal sectarian politics.

Saddam's battered forces regrouped and crushed the uprisings.

Fearing reprisals, and a repeat of a 1988 attack when Saddam's forces had used chemical weapons against Kurdish civilians, more than 1.5 million Kurds fled their homes, many heading towards the mountainous frontiers with Turkey and Iran.

By April 6, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees estimated that 750,000 Iraqi Kurds had crossed to Iran and 280,000 to Turkey, with a further 300,000 gathering on the Turkish border.

With a humanitarian catastrophe in the making, then US president George H Bush announced the creation of a safe haven in northern Iraq.

Forces from the US, UK and France established military no-fly zones in the south, and another in the north  - Operation Provide Comfort – to protect Kurds fleeing the advancing Iraqi forces.

Supplies were air-dropped to refugees and aid teams dispatched, protected by Western troops.

Canberra's contribution was codenamed Operation Habitat, and the 75 Australians were based about 30 kilometres north of the city of Dahak.

Two Australian military doctors, Majors Mark Little and Jonathon Hodge, estimated that 4 million Kurds were ultimately displaced by the war.

Writing in the Medical Journal of Australia they noted that:

"When the (team) arrive the situation was already improving, with the majority of Kurds having returned from the mountains in Iran and Turkey."

"The situation however was still far from normal with the Kurds living in tents or lean-tos either on the sides of roads or on the sites of their destroyed villages (of which there were many)."

More than 3,000 patients were treated by the Australian team - 80 per cent of them children - with diarrhoea, dehydration, malnutrition, scabies or skin infections. They also treated injuries caused by mine blasts.

The slouch-hatted Australians were easily recognisable.

"The Kurds could hardly believe that soldiers from so far away had come to assist them in their moment of need."

"They were extremely grateful and shared whatever they had with us."

"Before we left, the Kurds were returning to their farms, rebuilding their villages, opening their shops and sending their children back to school".

The Australian mission lasted two months. By mid-July 1991, the last Western troops withdrew from northern Iraq, although the no-fly zone remained in force.

Several years of turmoil followed; Kurds fighting Iraqi forces, Kurds fighting Kurds in a civil war, then the upheavals of the 2003 US-led invasion that finally deposed Saddam.

Now both the US and Australia are back

Last month the RAAF launched humanitarian airdrops to besieged civilians in Iraq's north, and began shipping arms and ammunition to bolster a new generation of Peshmerga fighters in Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region, although some military observers have questioned whether their military experience matches that of their forebears.

Determining the capabilities of the Kurdish forces and defining the boundaries of Australia's latest Iraq mission appears to be a work in progress.

There are obviously further decisions to be taken "before Australian forces commit to combat action against IS militants" Mr Abbott on Sunday said.

"Should this extend into combat operations, it could go on for some time."

Rodger Shanahan, a former Australian Army officer with UN experience in Lebanon and Syria and now a security expert with the Sydney-based Lowy Institute for International Policy, said it was hard to determine how long the mission would last.

"We don't know what the mission itself is, because it's a precautionary deployment, but you would assume you wouldn't deploy unless they assume they're going to be used," he told ABC News 24.

"We assume it's going to be battling Islamic State. The question is how long is a piece of string? You assume this will last months at a minimum."

Australia’s First Gulf War 1990-91

On August 2, 1990, Saddam ordered his army - then the world's fourth largest standing military - to invade oil-rich Kuwait.

In response, the United Nations Security Council imposed sanctions on Iraq, before finally authorising a US-led military coalition – including Australia - to eject the Iraqis from Kuwait.

Operation Desert Storm commenced with a one-month air bombardment campaign followed by a swift ground assault in February 1991, that was dubbed the "100-hour war". 

Iraq suffered about 100,000 casualties, while fewer than 200 coalition troops were killed in combat – several by friendly fire.

Australia's main contribution was naval support in the northern Persian Gulf.

Three guided missile frigates, a destroyer, and two support ships were deployed during the campaign.

An Army air defence detachment was also sent to sea to protect the supply ships from possible air attack.

A Royal Australian Navy special forces Clearance Diving team was also sent for de-mining and demolition tasks.

Australian medical teams served aboard US navy hospital ships, and a small number of RAAF photo interpreters were dispatched to Coalition headquarters in Saudi Arabia. 

While no Australian Defence Force unit served in a ground combat role, a few Australians were on exchange with American and British units, including army officer John Cantwell.

Nineteen years later Cantwell would rise to become a Major General, returning to the region to command Australian forces in the Middle East, before retiring and publishing an autobiography, Exit Wounds.

The book included an account of his combat experiences in the 1991 Gulf War and subsequent struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Between Australia's two Gulf Wars, Coalition aircraft continued to patrol the northern and southern No Fly Zones.

Economic sanctions were imposed on Iraq, enforced by a naval blockade that included Australian warships. 

Australians served on UN-sanctioned inspection teams that searched for Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs)

Australia’s Second Gulf War 2003-2009

Following the Al Qaeda attacks on the United States in September 2001 and the subsequent US-led invasion of Afghanistan, president George W Bush claimed Iraq was secretly aiding terrorists and continuing to develop WMDs.

The UN refused to sanction any further military action.

In March 2003, Australia participated in the US-led Coalition that invaded Iraq to locate and destroy suspected WMDs.

Australia's military commitment to the initial invasion, codenamed Operation Falconer, was larger than the 1991 conflict.

The Navy deployed three ships and a clearance diving team in the northern Persian Gulf.

The Army sent a 500-strong special forces task group supported by three Chinook helicopters.

This group was tasked with securing large areas of western Iraq where it was feared the Iraqis had concealed Scud missile sites.

The SAS and commandos captured the vast Al Asad Airbase complex, seizing dozens of military aircraft.

The RAAF deployed 14 FA-18 Hornet fighters, three Hercules transport aircraft and two Orion maritime surveillance planes.

Initially the Hornets escorted tanker and surveillance aircraft. Once it became clear the Iraqi air force posed no serious threat, the fighters were redeployed on ground attack missions.

The Coalition failed to find any WMDs, but in less than a month the US-led Coalition had captured Baghdad, destroyed the Iraqi military and deposed Hussein.

Most of the Australian forces involved in the initial invasion went home, although small contingents were sent to Baghdad airport and to protect diplomats.

What followed was a steady slide into civil war between various Iraqi Sunni and Shia militias, and an increasingly bloody insurgency campaign directed against the occupying Coalition forces.

In 2003, the Australian contribution was re-badged as Operation Catalyst, and an Army training team was deployed to assist in rebuilding the Iraqi military which had been disbanded following Saddam's defeat.

The complete dismantling of Saddam's forces had further destabilised the security environment.

In 2005, Canberra committed troops to the reconstruction phase, a 500-strong Army task force was sent to the relatively peaceful Al Muthanna Province in the south of Iraq, on the border with Saudi Arabia, to protect a contingent of Japanese engineers.

When the Japanese left, the Australian task force relocated to Tallil Airbase in a neighbouring province. 

By 2006, 1,400 Australians were serving in Iraq.

Australia began withdrawing its troops in 2008, finally ending operations in July 2009, with the last US combat soldiers leaving Iraq in December 2011.

No Australian personnel were killed in action during the Iraq campaign.

One soldier died from an accidental gunshot and an Australian serving with the British air force died when his transport plane crashed.