Foreign Affairs: Why NZ mission in Iraq was extended

NZDF recommits in Iraq and Russia/NATO boost troops near Ukraine on Foreign Affairs Scope. With special feature audio.

Prime Minister John Key this week announced an extension to the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) training programme in Iraq. Up to 143 NZDF personnel will rotate through the country over another 18 months to assist the international Operation Inherent Resolve built to bolster Iraq Security Force’s (ISF) fight against the Islamic State militancy.

The ISF has also made significant gains against the IS-held city of Fallujah west of Baghdad, clearing many of its neighbourhoods while engaging the militant’s last holdouts in the city’s north. IS doesn’t appear to have been defeated – rather it has chosen a tactical withdrawal. More worryingly, in a breach of agreement within the ISF, Shiite militias have entered the city with reports of sectarian violations against Sunni residents already emerging.

This threatens to undermine Baghdad’s success in Fallujah and could set the groundwork for IS to recapture the city in the future. A major reason the population of Fallujah remained passive against IS was deep sectarian animosity amongst Sunnis toward the Shiite-controlled Baghdad. The Iraqi capital must address the grievances of this sectarianism or it risks collapsing the progress it has made against IS.

NATO and Russia continue to boost troop numbers on either side of the Ukraine and  former Soviet Union border. A 24-nation, 31,000-troop NATO wargame named Anaconda-16 that brought Western forces within shooting distance of Russian territory concluded last week. Significant numbers of US troops are now present in eastern Europe, and more are expected.

Russia also announced it would create three new divisions (each 10,000 strong), two of which it will position near its western borders. Elements of Russia’s military continue to conduct snap exercises across the border region, a process Russia has maintained since the early engagements of the Ukraine/Crimea unrest. Unconfirmed reports also suggest a build-up of separatist armour in preparation for possible offensive operations as the hot summer months begin.

The military posturing underscores Russia’s vulnerability and reflects the difficult negotiations still in flux between Kiev, Berlin, Moscow and Washington. The US and Russia are still the central players tussling over Ukraine but the benefit of time sits squarely with the last. Mr Obama hopes to score a quick win in Ukraine before his administration ends and Mr Putin would be happy to oblige. 

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