Up to 100 Kiwi troops poised to join war in Iraq

A DECADE AGO: Prime Minister Helen Clark visited Kiwi troops serving on Operation Telic II in Basra, Iraq in November ...

A DECADE AGO: Prime Minister Helen Clark visited Kiwi troops serving on Operation Telic II in Basra, Iraq in November 2003. Whangarei soldier Sapper Aaron Butler greeted the PM with the Wero.

New Zealand is poised to join the war in Iraq with the deployment of Kiwi troops to the region to train local forces.

Cabinet is expected to agree in principle to the deployment on Monday after concerns were eased over the Iraqi Government's refusal to sign a "status of forces" agreement setting out the legal status of the New Zealand troops.

Alternatives including "diplomatic passports with guns" or special military or official passports are understood to be under discussion and sources say they should provide the level of legal protection demanded by the New Zealand government as a condition of sending troops.

But that could be controversial - the former commander of New Zealand troops in Afghanistan, retired Colonel Richard Hall, said settling the legal position of New Zealand troops was crucial before any deployment.

"The Status of Forces agreement gives you your legitimacy; if you don't have one - if you take if from the ultimate end of the spectrum - you're actually an occupying force. It's rather like Russian soldiers turning up in New Zealand with weapons.  They have no jurisdiction, no legality to be here, no legality to wear [weapons] and shouldn't be wearing uniforms and so on."

The contingent of as many as 100 troops will be based alongside Australian and other forces at the US military base Camp Taji north of Baghdad. It will include combat trained soldiers to provide "force protection" and a small army of logistics people, including command centre staff and intelligence people.

But the deployment is deeply opposed by Opposition parties who have warned that it could drag New Zealand into another long and bloody conflict, just two years after Kiwi troops were pulled from Bamyan, Afghanistan, a decade after the American invasion.

The divisions over Iraq are so deep Prime Minister John Key is likely to seek a Parliamentary debate without a vote, in stark contrast to 2003 when Helen Clark sought Parliament's backing to send the SAS to Afghanistan.

Clark said she did not need to put it to the vote but she wanted the troops to know they had the backing of Parliament. Every party except the Greens voted in favour.

But with Labour, NZ First, the Greens, United Future and the Maori Party lined up against sending troops to Iraq, the Government can only count on ACT, meaning it would almost certainly lose a vote because it has one vacant seat due to the resignation of Northland MP Mike Sabin.

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