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Iraqi soldiers head into Mosul cauldron

AAP logoAAP 27/10/2016 Max Blenkin, Defence Correspondent

Training Iraqi soldiers for the brutal fight against the Islamic State group brings the occasional special moment for members of the Australian and New Zealand task force inside Iraq.

Colonel Andrew Lowe, commander of the Australian and new Zealand training team in Iraq, recalls one particular moment.

Unbidden, an Iraqi soldier, stood up before his comrades and announced he had been shot six times in fighting in Fallujah, dropped his strides to reveal the healed wounds and declared he survived thanks to the medical training provided by the training team.

"This training saved my life," he told other Iraqi soldiers about to undergo instruction in combat first aid.

Since the 300 Australians and 100 New Zealanders of Task Force Taji started work in May 2015, more than 14,000 Iraqi soldiers have undergone training, some more than once. This soldier was one.

"We can go back and say to Taji Rotation One - you taught them how to do that. They are back here now doing refresher training and the new recruits who have joined the brigade are learning from that experience," Colonel Lowe told AAP in a phone interview from Iraq.

Combat first aid taught to Iraqi soldiers isn't that different to what Australian soldiers learn - apply tourniquet and bandages to halt gross bleeding, establish an airway, get casualty to hospital.

The Iraqi military hasn't been noted for quality medical services. For a soldier heading into battle, knowing he can survive a wound is a significant confidence-builder.

It's the same with basic marksmanship, taught to all arriving Iraqi soldiers whether veteran or novice. Anyone who has ever watched TV news reports would appreciate that many Middle East soldiers view marksmanship as emptying the magazine of an AK-47 while firing from the hip.

Australian and New Zealand training stresses single aimed shots. "Weapons proficiency is the number one. If you can shoot longer, faster and straighter than your enemy, you will win the individual fight. We just need to make them better than Daesh and they are and they're proving it," Colonel Lowe said, using the Arabic phrase for IS.

He said an Iraqi general personally praised the marksmanship instruction.

"He said to me 'this shooting training is excellent. We need more of it'," he said.

Many units which have passed through Taji, a vast military base just north of Baghdad, are now engaged in the offensive to retake Mosul, tipped to be a bloody, brutal and protracted battle as about 5000 IS fighters hold on to the end, using civilians as human shields and resorting to suicide tactics and maybe even chemical weapons.

Colonel Lowe sees daily coalition briefings on progress of the operation.

Like almost everyone in Iraq, he can also view intensive coverage of the offensive by the Iraqi media, which includes commanders and soldiers, some faces familiar to the training team, doing live TV interviews from freshly liberated villages on the Mosul outskirts.

"There are special bonds made and relationships between our trainers, the commanders and our interpreters. We get very close," he said.

The three rotations of the training team have always been conscious that they were preparing Iraqi soldiers to fight IS in Mosul.

The current rotation started work in early June when the fighting for Fallujah was at its height.

"In the early mornings you could hear the artillery supporting the battle. It was just 40 kilometres away to our west. We didn't need much reminding of why we were here," he said.

Colonel Lowe said most of the soldiers who passed through Taji had come from fighting in Ramadi and Fallujah.

"It was very much in our minds that we were training soldiers who had recent combat experience in their own country. They were coming to us to go to another fight," he said.

"Here are soldiers with the most contemporary combat experience there is on the globe at the moment. We get the privilege and the honour to tweak them."

Training team members asked Iraqi commanders where they see gaps and in what areas they would like additional training.

That's led to a concentration on weapons proficiency and medical training, as well as dealing with the omni-present improvised explosive devices and fighting in urban areas.

So how long will it take to liberate Mosul?

"There are all sorts of predictions from the coalition side and from the Iraqi side. It is the number one topic in any cafe across Iraq or of any military professional observing it from outside," Colonel Lowe said.

"The Iraqis have a plan. Their generals interviewed on their media say it's going to plan. "

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