ALISON CARABINE Julie Bishop, thanks for your time this morning.
JULIE BISHOP My pleasure.
ALISON CARABINE Minister, the Iraqi Government said it’s starting to push the militants back. It’s regained the initiative in the north of the country. What’s your advice on that? Do you know it to be the case?
JULIE BISHOP The security situation throughout Iraq is very volatile. Our estimation is it could deteriorate further with little warning but we certainly strongly support the Iraqi Government’s ongoing efforts to counter the terrorism that’s taking place within its borders.
ISIS or ISIL is listed in Australia as a terrorist entity and we’re certainly calling on Iraqi leaders to work together to address this situation and particularly to facilitate the provision of humanitarian assistance to the affected communities.
We understand that about 500,000 people are fleeing cities in north west Iraq and that, there’s another 300,000 displaced people from conflicts earlier this year in Anbar Province and there’s about 225,000 Syrian refugees in Iraq so there is a humanitarian crisis that must also be addressed.
ALISON CARABINE Has the Australian Government received any calls for help to address that humanitarian crisis?
JULIE BISHOP Not at this stage. We have been talking with our British friends who have a team on the ground. Britain is supplying humanitarian aid at this stage but we’ve not received the request to assist but we certainly stand ready to provide assistance should that be required.
ALISON CARABINE Minister, you mentioned the ongoing efforts by the Iraqi forces but what we have seen over the last 24 hours is those very disturbing reports of mass executions of Iraqi forces by Sunni jihadists but maybe as many as 1700 Shi’a soldiers have been massacred. Is Australia taking its own steps, through our embassy in Baghdad to try and verify those claims?
JULIE BISHOP Of course, we’re doing what we can to find out the state of the situation from moment to moment but it’s very volatile, as I said it could deteriorate further with little warning.
We are ensuring that our people in Baghdad are safe and secure. We are in close contact with our mission in Iraq and we continue to plan for contingencies. I spoke with our Ambassador over the weekend and we’re working with likeminded countries to protect Australian interests and Australian personnel over there.
So there’s a limit to how much intelligence work we can do in Iraq but we are certainly relying on the information that’s provided by the British and Americans who have teams on the ground. We have a small presence in our embassy in Baghdad.
ALISON CARABINE But if those mass executions can be verified, what does that tell us about what the West could be up against in northern Iraq?
JULIE BISHOP Well we already know that this Islamic terrorist group is brutal. It’s one of the worst forms of jihadist groups that we’ve seen. It’s an offshoot of Al-Qaeda but it’s even too extreme for Al-Qaeda. This group has been attacking cities, they’ve been attacking key infrastructure, there have been hundreds of deaths, hundreds of people killed over the previous weeks and months, between ISIS and the Iraq Security Forces. There’ve been some significant battles so this is a very deeply troubling scenario in Iraq and of course there’s the situation in Syria. This is where ISIS was reinvigorated in Syria, so between Syria, Iraq, the Middle East is looking very unstable indeed.
ALISON CARABINE Well Tony Blair, he says that Iraq is now in mortal danger with ISIS still in control in much of northern Iraq which, as you say, borders Syria. So is that what you refer to when you talk about the broader strategic sense, the implications of what could happen for the broader region because of ISIS control in northern Iraq and indeed Syria?
JULIE BISHOP Well ISIS is not only a threat to Iraq but it is also active in Syria. It is a threat to the stability of the region. I understand this group, this ISIS extremist group, seeks to form an Islamic State across Iraq, Syria even Lebanon. There is a crisis in Iraq and we know the situation in Syria is diabolical at present and so this is a deeply troubling development with this Islamic terrorist group that has captured cities in Iraq’s north west.
ALISON CARABINE And Minister, you have on a number of occasions expressed concern that young Australian men fighting in Syria could be radicalised. There could be several 100 Australians already in Syria. Are you also now concerned that some of these people across the border are fighting government forces in Iraq?
JULIE BISHOP Well I don’t have any information to that effect but ISIS is active in Syria. I am concerned that Australian nationals are joining with terrorist groups in Syria, jihadists, they’re becoming radicalised and our concern is that they’ll return to Australia or our region.
This is a concern I’ve shared with my counterparts in Indonesia, Malaysia, in Great Britain, in Europe, a number of countries are deeply worried about the fact that the Syrian conflict is attracting people to this fight. They are working with extremists or supporting extremist groups and I fear they are learning skills that could be utilised elsewhere. So the situation in the Middle East is impacting on Australia’s security.
ALISON CARABINE And with regards to the efforts to try and crush the insurgents in northern Iraq - do you have any confidence that the Iraqi forces can quell this uprising or will it need US intervention, possibly through air strikes?
JULIE BISHOP Well we certainly support the Iraqi Governments efforts to counter ISIS activities and we note that the United States has moved equipment into the Gulf, it has moved a ship in. We’re talking to the United States on a constant basis as we routinely do when situations like this develop. There’s been no indication that the United States would like us to help and at present our focus is on protecting Australian citizens and our interests in Iraq.
ALISON CARABINE So you don’t think there will be any request from Washington for Australian military assistance?
JULIE BISHOP Well there hasn’t been to date, there’s been no indication that the United States would like us to help.
ALISON CARABINE Julie Bishop, with regards to Australians in Iraq, you mentioned that you are planning for all contingencies on the weekend you did issue a plea for any Australian in Iraq to leave. There are 90 Australians registered with the Australian Embassy, do you have a clearer idea of how many Australians are actually in Iraq and whether or not any of them have followed your advice and left the country?
JULIE BISHOP I understand that there are more than 90 Australians registered in Iraq and my advice is that any Australians in Iraq should depart immediately by commercial means if it’s safe to do so. Those who choose to remain should make arrangements in line with their own personal circumstances and ensure that they have contingency plans due to the very challenging security environment. We are unlikely to be able to provide the level of consular assistance that might be expected in Iraq at this time so those concerned about the welfare of their family and friends in Iraq should attempt to make direct contact with them. If they are unable to of course we have a 24-hour consular emergency number - 1300 555 135. So if people are concerned about Australian family and friends currently in Iraq they should attempt to contact them but my strong advice is they should seek to leave.
The international airport in Baghdad continues to operate normally. There are commercial flights available, indeed Turkish airlines has announced additional flights. The airport in Mosul in the northwest is of course closed. But I do reiterate our advice is that Australians in Iraq should depart immediately.
ALISON CARABINE And what about those Australians working at the Embassy in Baghdad, the US has started evacuating some of its staff, would you consider doing the same?
JULIE BISHOP We have already made arrangements for a number of our staff to leave. We will keep an essential core there but we’ve already made arrangements for some of our staff to leave.
ALISON CARABINE Minister thanks so much for your time this morning.
JULIE BISHOP It’s been my pleasure.
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