The Courier-Mail



- neil.door­

THREE hun­dred sol­diers from Bris­bane are feel­ing the heat.

It’s not only the 50C-plus scorch­ing sand­blasted ex­tremes of Iraq’s sum­mer, but the blow­torch pres­sure of shap­ing young Iraqi re­cruits for the bru­tal front­line bat­tle with ISIS.

And the com­mand­ing of­fi­cer, Colonel Matthew Gal­ton, is sweat­ing the most. He knows the buck stops with him when it comes to this mis­sion.

“There is a lot at stake,’’ says the vet­eran of sev­eral over­seas de­ploy­ments. “We are mak­ing progress with the lo­cal troops and while it might be slow progress, it is progress nonethe­less but there is a lot of fight­ing to come.”

Gal­ton and his troops – from Enog­gera Bar­racks’ 7th Brigade – are sta­tioned at the sprawl­ing Taji Army Base near Bagh­dad. It’s where they are try­ing to turn thou­sands of de­mor­alised and dis­heart­ened Iraqi sol­diers into con­fi­dent ISIS killers.

Since May, they’ve armed 1600 Iraqis with fresh skills and equip­ment and, more im­por­tantly, re­newed de­ter­mi­na­tion be­fore they join counter-of­fen­sives in a bid to re­claim their land from Is­lamic state mil­i­tants.

About 950 Iraqi troops – in­clud­ing 200 non­com­mis­sioned of­fi­cers – are be­ing pre­pared to join an as­sault on ISIS forces at Ra­madi, a ma­jor city less than 100kms from Taji.

The Bris­bane sol­diers are on a “be­hind the wire” de­ploy­ment, which means they stay on their base and don’t ac­tu­ally fight.

Dur­ing an ex­clu­sive in­ter­view with In­sight, Gal­ton says the Iraqis are en­thu­si­as­ti­cally em­brac­ing the train­ing and suc­cess­fully em­ploy­ing their newly ac­quired skills in the fierce fight­ing against ISIS.

The Iraqis are not only per­form­ing bet­ter on the front­line, he says, but are hellbent on restor­ing “some re­spect’’ af­ter a “hor­ren­dous year’’ dur­ing which ISIS fight­ers crushed their forces and took con­trol of a “swathe of the coun­try”.

“Last year was a bad year and it takes quite a long time to re­build an army from that sort of ex­pe­ri­ence,’’ Gal­ton says.

“But the Iraqis are re­spond­ing well to our train­ing, and they are ea­ger when they are do­ing it.

“They’re tak­ing con­fi­dence from the train­ing and re­al­is­ing that their weapons, and the tech­niques and pro­ce­dures we are run­ning them through, do ac­tu­ally work.

“Daesh (ISIS) is a ca­pa­ble en­emy, but it is an en­emy that can be beaten and the Ra­madi op­er­a­tion will be long, slow and tough but from what we’ve seen so far, there has not been a back­ward step taken by the Iraqi troops.

“Cer­tainly I don’t see Daesh be­ing able to con­tinue com­ing fur­ther east to­wards Bagh­dad.”

With pre­vi­ous bat­tles high­light­ing a wor­ry­ing trend of Iraqi of­fi­cers aban­don­ing their troops, Gal­ton says the train­ing of NCOs was crit­i­cal in im­prov­ing Iraqi troops’ chances against the terror group.

“There are quite a lot of the lead­ers out there who do strug­gle, but then again there are oth­ers we’ve seen who are very good,’’ Gal­ton says.

“For ex­am­ple, the com­man­der of the Iraq army’s 76th brigade was fan­tas­tic when he did his train­ing, and an of­fi­cer who deeply cared for his sol­diers and was ea­ger to learn.

“Due to his lead­er­ship and the ef­forts of his young sol­diers, they are do­ing pretty well in the field. The fu­ture is look­ing bet­ter for the Iraqi army, but it is go­ing to take time.”

While the fight for Ra­madi might be too close for com­fort, Gal­ton says ISIS has not at­tacked the Taji base. But the con­stant threat meant his troops re­mained “vig­i­lant and alert”.

“Any Iraqi army base here could be a tar­get but, thus far, there hasn’t been an at­tempt here since we ar­rived and I think the en­emy prob­a­bly knows it would be quite a hard tar­get for them.”

The Bris­bane troops have been de­ployed as part of Op­er­a­tion OKRA, Aus­tralia’s con­tri­bu­tion to the in­ter­na­tional ef­fort to fight ISIS in Iraq, which be­gan in Au­gust, 2014. Led by the US, coun­tries in­clud­ing Aus­tralia, the UK, France, Canada, Bahrain, Jor­dan, Qatar and Saudi Ara­bia have all com­mit­ted troops and/or air sup­port in the fight against the mil­i­tants. Fig­ures up to June this year show that, so far, there have been more than 2800 air strikes on ISIS tar­gets in Iraq and more than 1700 in Syria.

Aus­tralia’s com­mit­ment has put 900 Aus­tralian De­fence Force per­son­nel on the ground – Task Group Taji has about 300 per­son­nel; a Spe­cial Oper­a­tions Task Group, there to pro­vide mil­i­tary ad­vice and as­sis­tance, has about 200, and the Air Task Group has about 400.

Aus­tralia’s air sup­port in­cludes six RAAF F/A-18 Hor­nets, which have so far clocked up thou­sands of hours and dropped hun­dreds of bombs on ISIS tar­gets.

For the Bris­bane troops fac­ing two months more in Iraq be­fore be­ing re­lieved by more Enog­gera sol­diers, another more per­sonal bat­tle in­volves try­ing to push thoughts and im­ages of fam­i­lies and loved ones to the back of their minds.

“Cer­tainly, these are long, hot days for our train­ers out on the ground run­ning it. It’s a tough cli­mate, that’s for sure,” Gal­ton says.

“Home­sick­ness is some­thing each in­di­vid­ual deals with in his or her own way. We tried to pre­pare the troops as much as we could be­fore leav­ing Bris­bane, es­pe­cially the ones who are on their first de­ploy­ment.

“It’s al­ways pretty tough for them to ad­just be­ing away from fam­ily and loved ones, and even for the older guys, like my­self, who’ve done a few de­ploy­ments, it is never easy.

“But I think the hard­est part is for the fam­i­lies back at home, be­cause we are very busy here and time sort of flies by. While we might get used to it, I don’t think fam­i­lies back home ever do.”

 ??  ?? WAR PREP: An ADF trainer (top) teaches small arms skills; Colonel Matt Gal­ton (mid­dle); and Cor­po­ral Jeffrey Cum­mings helps with nav­i­ga­tion.
WAR PREP: An ADF trainer (top) teaches small arms skills; Colonel Matt Gal­ton (mid­dle); and Cor­po­ral Jeffrey Cum­mings helps with nav­i­ga­tion.
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