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Australian troops set to stay in Iraq despite Iranian missile attack

“No further actions or decisions deemed necessary at this time however the situation continues to be closely monitored. Engagement is also continuing with coalition partners, especially the USA,” a spokesman for the Prime Minister said after the meeting.

Australia’s national security committee has discussed a withdrawal of troops in recent days and will continue to consider this as an option, given the volatile conditions and talk of war between the US and Iran.

Weighing against this option is the risk that a sudden withdrawal allows Islamic State to regain ground in Iraq, unleashing more threats across the region when the stated coalition mission is to curb terrorism.

The Iranian attack – labelled “fierce revenge” by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard for the Trump administration’s assassination of commander Qassem Soleimani on Friday – has fuelled fears about escalating conflict in the Middle East.

Illustration: Matt Golding

Illustration: Matt GoldingCredit:

About 300 Australian troops are located at the Taji base north of Baghdad but the facility does not appear to have been targeted, despite earlier reports of an attack there.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said Iran “took and concluded” the measures in self-defence.

“We do not seek escalation or war, but will defend ourselves against any aggression,” he wrote on Twitter.

The statement and the use of “concluded” led observers to suggest Iran would not take further action unless the US retaliated in turn.

US President Donald Trump reacted to the attack by declaring on Twitter that “all is well” and the damage was being assessed.

“All is well! Missiles launched from Iran at two military bases located in Iraq. Assessment of casualties and damages taking place now. So far, so good!” he wrote.

“We have the most powerful and well equipped military anywhere in the world, by far!”

A boy carries a portrait of Iranian Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who was killed in a U.S. airstrike in Iraq.

A boy carries a portrait of Iranian Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who was killed in a U.S. airstrike in Iraq.Credit:AP

Mr Morrison said he had been told all Australian diplomatic and defence personnel in Iraq were safe but he warned the situation was “very fluid” and the government was in contact with the Trump administration to gain updates.

“We’re working closely to protect the safety of Australians,” he said.

“We’re doing everything to ensure their continued safety.”

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Mr Morrison spoke to the Chief of the Defence Force, General Angus Campbell, immediately after the Iranian attack to ask him to do “what was necessary” to protect the Australian personnel in Baghdad.

The Prime Minister was due to speak to General Campbell in Canberra on Wednesday night and spoke earlier in the day with Foreign Minister Marise Payne, Defence Minister Linda Reynolds and Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese.

While the NSC meeting was previously scheduled to discuss the bushfire response and other matters, it will consider an expanded agenda in the light of the Iranian attacks on the Ain Asad air base in western Iraq and a facility in Erbil in the north of the country.

Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard confirmed through a statement to state television that they fired the missiles in retaliation for the US action last week in assassinating Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in a drone strike.

The Australian Defence Force’s chief of joint operations, Lieutenant General Greg Bilton, said on Wednesday afternoon he had received “no reporting of impacts” on the Australians at Taji.

Asked about the possibility of withdrawal or evacuation of Australian personnel, Lieutenant General Bilton said the military was preparing for all eventualities.

“At this stage, we have been contingency planning as you always do,” he said.

“It’s just common sense. And we are preparing those plans for Iraq in different circumstances, which I won’t discuss here … Government is working through its policy position at the moment.”

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Mr Morrison was travelling to South Australia aboard a Royal Australian Air Force jet to see the impact of bushfires on Kangaroo Island when he learned of the Iranian missile attacks, leading him to confer with General Campbell, Senator Payne, Senator Reynolds and Mr Albanese.

Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese, who received an initial briefing from Mr Morrison, expressed caution about the possibility of entering into another conflict in the Middle East and said all parties should exercise restraint.

“The actions of the United States have led to then another response from Iran. This is potentially very dangerous indeed. And I don’t want to see Australia drawn into a military conflict in the Middle East,” he said.

“The first priority … should be ensuring that Australians are kept safe, the Australians are located very close to where the Americans are located in the area that has been targeted. So they are just next door,” he said.

Malcolm Davis, a senior analyst with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said any further escalation depended on Mr Trump’s response to the missile attack.

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“I think it will largely depend on what President Trump decides in the next few hours. The next few hours really are critical,” he said.

“If they retaliate in a manner that’s disproportionate and wider, given that the ballistic missiles were fired from within Iran that’s quite possible, then the Iranians would feel the need to respond back and so you could see that escalatory cycle occurring.”

Dr Davis said an escalation would likely see the US request assistance from Australia and “from an Australian perspective, as a key US ally, we would be very hard-pressed to say no”.

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