AUSSIE MENTORS FEELING THE HEAT
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.”