The Australian Defence Force has about 350 troops in Iraq and 2000 support personnel in the surrounding area as part of an international coalition to defeat the Islamic State terror group.
Fuelled by rising Iranian influence over its neighbour’s domestic politics, the Iraqi parliament on Monday voted to expel US troops and their allies – including Australia – from the country.
While Tehran has enormous influence over the Iraqi parliament, the Morrison government believes Australia still has sway with the executive, which will have to make the final decision about whether to action the parliamentary expulsion order or ignore it.
Foreign Minister Marise Payne will on Tuesday publicly plead for the Iraqi government to let Australian and international partners remain in the country.
“We urge the Iraqi government to ensure the coalition is able to continue its vital work with Iraq’s security forces in countering the shared threat of Daesh,” she said.
“We understand the resolution passed by Iraq’s parliament is non-binding, absent formal approval by the government in Baghdad.”
An intense lobbying effort is under way behind the scenes to convince Iran’s government to allow the international effort to continue, however senior officials inside the Department of Defence and Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade have started contingency planning in case Baghdad buckles under pressure and adopts the resolution.
Australia, Britain, France, Germany and other western nations have long viewed Soleimani as a major threat to regional peace but are concerned Iran’s destabilising behaviour and the rising White House rhetoric in the days since the killing could trigger conflict.
“Australia, and a number of international partners, have long been concerned by Iran’s behaviour in the Middle East,” Payne said.
She urged “all parties to avoid escalation” – a diplomatic reference to the United States as well as other players in the stand-off.
Payne said the safety and security of Australia’s diplomatic and Defence personnel was the government’s top priority in responding to the outbreak of tensions.
“To that end we have drawn down to essential staff in our embassy in Baghdad and are taking all necessary measures to ensure the safety of all Australians who remain in the country.”
The Australian embassy in Iraq was placed into lockdown on Saturday following the drone strike, which Prime Minister Scott Morrison admitted had blindsided the US’s allies in the region.
The US-led Operation Inherent Resolve, a training mission to which Australia contributes, paused its operations on Monday due to heightened security concerns.
The operation has largely defeated or contained ISIS but military officials say an ongoing presence by coalition forces is essential to stop a resurgence that could trigger fresh terrorist attacks in the Middle East, Europe and even Australia.
Australia has budgeted $241 million on Operation OKRA this financial year and spent nearly $2.5 billion in the years since it was launched by the then prime minister Tony Abbott in 2014.
Trump has vowed to impose crippling sanctions on Iraq if it orders US troops to leave the country for the first time since the 2003 invasion.
“If they do ask us to leave, if we don’t do it in a very friendly basis, we will charge them sanctions like they’ve never seen before ever,” Trump said. “It’ll make Iranian sanctions look somewhat tame.”
In a further blow to peace, Iran has suspended all commitments under the 2015 nuclear deal it had struck with world powers and will abandon restrictions on uranium enrichment and other activities.
Payne said the government regretted the agreement’s demise.
“While the [deal] was flawed, it was the best option for non-proliferation,” she said.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson spoke with Iraqi Prime Minster Abdul Mehdi on Monday as part of a coordinated European attempt to ease tensions
“The Prime Minister underlined the UK’s unwavering commitment to Iraq’s stability and sovereignty and emphasised the importance of the continued fight against the shared threat from Daesh,” a spokesman said.
Bevan Shields is the Europe correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.