NZ to extend Iraq mission

Kiwi troops training Iraqi forces at Camp Taji (Defence Force)
Kiwi troops training Iraqi forces at Camp Taji (Defence Force)

Kiwi troops will be extending their mission in Iraq by 18 months and will also be leaving their base for another on occasion, the Defence Minister has announced.

Prime Minister John Key, Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee and Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully made the announcement at the post-Cabinet news conference on Monday afternoon.

NZ to extend Iraq mission

(Richard Cooper / Newshub.)

Among the changes, it was announced a small number of around six or eight at a time will travel "for short periods" to Besmaya -- another secure training location 52km southeast of the existing joint New Zealand-Australia base.

"At Besmaya our troops will ensure a smooth handover of the Iraqi soldiers they've been training at Taji to other coalition trainers, who will be teaching them to use heavy weapons," Mr Brownlee says.

Mr Brownlee says Cabinet has also agreed in principle New Zealand personnel will be authorised to provide training to stabilisation forces, such as the Iraqi Federal Police, as well as the country's Army.

Kiwi troops will now be in Iraq until at least November 2018, though when the Government first committed troops in 2015 it pledged the country's forces wouldn't stay beyond two years.

"While I remain of the view that we should have a limited timeframe in such a role, during the course of this mission I've received advice and recommendations which have led me to reconsider that position," Mr Key says.

"I acknowledge this is a change of position."

Mr Key couldn't guarantee there wouldn't be another extension, but didn't want them to be there "forever".

Mr Brownlee estimated the extension would cost about $10 million including keeping New Zealand's embassy in Baghdad open. So far the deployment has cost $40 million.

Mr Brownlee says the stabilisation forces are critical in securing cities once they've been taken back from Islamic State (IS), also known as Daesh.

"Our armed forces are extremely good at this sort of work, and this is having a tangible effect on the Iraqi Army's ability to take and hold ground from Daesh.

"So it makes sense to continue doing something that adds value to the likelihood of Iraqi peace and security in the future, and to amend our mission to meet the changing environment in Iraq," Mr Brownlee says.

Mr Key also says the work is paying off.

"A direct link has been made between coalition training and better operation performance by the Iraqi Army units," Mr Key says.

The decision won't change the number of troops in Iraq, which will remain at 143, most of whom are so-called force protection.

Cabinet is "comfortable" there are enough security measures for the trip between the two camps to protect staff.

Mr Key says he's been assured by the Defence Force chief that Besmaya is "as safe as Taji, if not even safer" and the right protections will be in place. Troops will be taken in and out of the camp by air.

The troops will be "behind the wire" while in Besmaya, which is also protected by several layers of security.

He believes the extension of the mission means good progress is being made, but there's "more work to be done".

"In my view, it is simply not tenable for New Zealand to step away from its responsibilities at this time."

New Zealand is part of an international coalition against IS, with Mr Key saying defeating the terrorist group in Iraq will go some way of reducing their prevalence across the world.

"The threat to New Zealand and New Zealand's interest remains a real one.

"IS' brutality has been on display to the world all too often -- attacks in Paris, Brussels, Turkey, Egypt and elsewhere have underscored the threat posed by its sick ideology," he says.

Mr Key said part of the reason for making the announcement now was to give the Australian partners notice of what New Zealand would be doing so they could plan ahead.

Labour leader Andrew Little says the case for continuing the deployment hasn't been made.

"It was always obvious that the Iraq deployment would not be complete within the two years originally set for the mission, and the Prime Minister has not been open with the public about the demands being made on our troops by Coalition allies," he says.

Labour opposed the deployment, though when Mr Little visited Camp Taji he saw firsthand the "hard work" the troops were doing and the "harsh conditions" they were in.

"Regardless of our position on the deployment, [the troops] continue to have our full support for the work they do," he says.

New Zealand First leader Winston Peters says the Government has "hoodwinked" the public.

"It was never going to be a tour of duty for just two years -- that was totally unrealistic given the circumstances of the war.

"Now he's extended the mission by 18 months, like a bolt out of the blue," he says.

Green Party co-leader James Shaw has also condemned the extension saying it exposed Kiwi troops to more danger, making them "unnecessary targets" of IS.

He says the $50 million cost of the mission would better be used on humanitarian efforts.

Mr McCully says New Zealand will also make a $1.4 million contribution to help communities damaged by continued fighting in Iraq.

It takes the country's humanitarian assistance to those affected in Syria and Iraq to $23.9 million over the past five years.

The money will go to the United Nations Development Programme and will be used on a number of projects including water and electricity restoration, reopening schools and hospitals and cash grants to open businesses.