John Key in dramatic Iraq troop visit
Prime Minister John Key has just ended a drama-filled trip to Iraq visiting Kiwi troops.
The first international leader to visit coalition forces at their military base north-west of Baghdad, Key's visit turned into a roller coaster ride involving the Australian, New Zealand and United States military after he was dogged by delays and sandstorms.
Key finally flew out of Iraq just after midnight local time on an air force Hercules after nearly being stranded there for an extra night by the storm.
Already 24 hours behind schedule, Key had previously been turned around from Baghdad after his first attempt to visit the troops at Camp Taji also had to be aborted because of sandstorms.
With the visit kept tightly under wraps for security reasons, the drama meant that Key effectively disappeared off the radar for more than 24 hours. While considered well secured, Camp Taji is surrounded by pockets of active Islamic State sympathisers so none of the group travelling with the Prime Minister was allowed to take in their cellphones or transmitting devices.
Media travelling with Key were subject to strict secrecy till he was safely out of the country and only a handful of his closest advisers and ministers were aware of the trip.
* Key: Camp a 'god-damn awful place'
* Kiwis in Iraq: No cowards here
* NZ could be in for the long haul in Iraq
* Photos: Life at Camp Taji
Key flew into Baghdad on Sunday on a Hercules accompanied by a heavily armed contingent of SAS close protection soldiers and a small group of officials and media.
A US military Iroquois helicopter was waiting to take Key to meetings with the Iraqi President and prime minister. Travel by road was too dangerous because of the threat of roadside bombs.
Just days before Key's arrival two suicide bombers - one of them driving an explosives-laden vehicle - blew themselves up in northwestern Baghdad, killing at least 24 people.
The flight took Key across the hostile red zone, requiring the helicopter to fly over Baghdad at low altitude and high speed to minimise the risk of attack.
Key was then meant to travel on to Camp Taji after returning to the waiting Hercules. But as a sandstorm blew in, conditions steadily worsened, threatening to strand the party in Baghdad.
At 10pm local time a call was made to return to New Zealand's Middle East logistics base because visibility was too poor to carry on to Taji. Waiting till morning was not an option as Herc flights into Taji are only made at night, for security reasons.
But as the plane crossed the border it hit heavy fog and two landings had to be aborted after the pilot lost visibility. The Hercules was forced to divert to Dubai airport before making a third attempt at landing. It hit the tarmac about 6am local time, five hours after leaving Baghdad on what had started out as a three-hour flight.
Key told reporters he had no plans to abandon his meeting with the Kiwi soldiers and would stay in the Middle East as long as feasible to make it happen.
He had pledged to visit the troops when announcing their deployment, saying he would not send them into any theatre he was not prepared to visit himself.
The entourage set out again 10 hours later, this time on an Australian air force Hercules making a supply run to Camp Taji, where Australian troops operate alongside the Kiwis.
But there was still uncertainty about the trip after news of an approaching dust storm.
The skies over Camp Taji are unflyable for about 100 days a year because of sandstorms and other extreme weather.
After arriving 24 hours later than initially planned, Key, dressed in full body armour, was escorted off the plane by SAS close protection officers.
He stayed on the base overnight and breakfasted in the camp mess with staff and his close protection team.
On a tour of the base, Key spoke to New Zealand trainers and also members of the Iraqi military, many of them battlefield veterans.
Later, he addressed a large group of Australian and New Zealand soldiers after being greeted with a powhiri and haka.
But with news of another approaching sandstorm, the race was on to get Key and the rest of the party out of Taji before it struck.
Dressed in full body armour and helmets, the travelling party was rushed to two waiting US military Chinook helicopters and took off a few minutes later.
Apache helicopters flew guard.
But after about 20 minutes in the air the Chinooks were forced to return to camp because of the sandstorm.
The departure was on again, off again throughout the evening as defence personnel tried to get a plane to Taji. It was close to midnight before the Hercules finally made it in to carry the prime minister's party back to Dubai.
Speaking ahead of his departure, Key said his visit to Taji had answered the question of whether New Zealand troops were making a difference there following Opposition criticism that the deployment was token.
"I do think we're making a tremendous difference and having come here now ... I feel very, very vindicated in what we're doing," Key said.
He paid tribute to the 104-strong Kiwi contingent for the work they were doing in such harsh conditions.
"It's a goddamned awful place ... it's desolate and beige, it's a tough operating environment. When they start telling you its 40 degrees and it's cool, what does hot look like? And the answer is 55 degrees and people are out there working. It's a tough place and they're working in it. "
Tracy Watkins and Mike Scott were hosted at Camp Taji by the NZDF which also flew them from Dubai to Iraq