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Aust would join attacks on fleeing Daesh

AAP logoAAP 26/07/2016 By Max Blenkin, Defence Correspondent

Australian combat aircraft will join attacks on Islamic State fighters fleeing the Iraqi city of Mosul if the opportunity arises, the head of Australian Defence Force joint operations says.

It would be commonsense to hit the Daesh forces before they could relocate to defend their strongholds in Syria, Vice Admiral David Johnston said.

As Iraqi forces retook the city of Fallujah last month, Daesh fighters fled in vehicle convoys, which were relentlessly targeted by Iraqi and coalition aircraft.

Hundreds were killed in what some reports have described as the most devastating series of air strikes on Daesh forces in the two-year conflict in Iraq.

Australian aircraft played no part, but they would if Daesh fighters tried to flee from the upcoming battle for Daesh-occupied Mosul, expected to be the most brutal fight of the conflict.

"If there is a lawful opportunity presented, consistent with our targeting requirements while they are moving and are more vulnerable between locations, we would be party to making sure we are able to target them," Vice Admiral Johnston told reporters in Canberra on Tuesday.

This was a significant moment in the campaign against Daesh which had lost 45 per cent of the territory it once controlled in Iraq and 20 per cent in Syria.

Most recently, Fallujah was retaken late in June, sooner than expected because of improved capability of Iraqi forces and reduced Daesh capacity to retain territory.

Mosul was another step up in difficulty, with estimates of 6000-8000 Daesh fighters holding the city, Vice Admiral Johnston said.

Australian combat aircraft have conducted more than 600 strike missions this year, most recently in support of operations in preparation for the assault on Mosul. The increasing operational tempo means fewer aircraft are returning to base without expending some or all of their weapons.

The momentum of the campaign was increasingly positive, with indications that Daesh combat capacity was degraded and their morale weakening.

As Daesh lost more territory, its credibility, based on its claim to be the Islamic caliphate, was undermined and that was already showing in the diminishing flow of foreign fighters.

Vice Admiral Johnston said it was unclear whether Daesh forces in Mosul would fight to the end or withdraw to their Syrian heartland.

Any withdrawal would be very difficult, with vehicles moving in large numbers in open terrain very vulnerable and it would commonsense to launch air strikes.

"You don't want to have to fight them all when they get to Raqqa," he said.

More than 100 Australians are believed to be serving with Daesh in Syria and Iraq but Vice Admiral Johnston said he seen no reporting to indicate participation of Australian fighters in recent fighting.

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