Australian forces will touch down in Iraq within days to deliver weapons to Kurdish fighters in what could be a precursor to greater military involvement against Islamic State terrorists.
In an escalation of the risk facing Australian personnel, Tony Abbott said two RAAF aircraft would join an international airlift to arm Kurdish Peshmerga fighters battling jihadists.
As the RAAF yesterday airdropped food, water and hygiene supplies in northern Iraq, the Prime Minister said there still had been no specific request from the US for Australia to send its F/A-18 Super Hornet jet fighters to the Middle East.
The Opposition gave the weapons mission bipartisan backing, but the Greens and independent MP Andrew Wilkie said the deployment of Australian forces should be a decision made by Parliament.
It was revealed by _The West Australian _ as being under consideration last week, and Mr Abbott has now confirmed a C-130 Hercules and a C-17 Globemaster based in Dubai would in coming days join the US, Britain, Canada, France and Italy to supply Kurds with weapons.
Mr Abbott said the request had been made by the US and the mission sanctioned by the Iraqi Government, with RAAF planes to land in Erbil to deliver their cargo.
Defence Force chief Mark Binskin said the weapons would come from Eastern bloc countries and include rocket-propelled grenades, mortars and ammunition.
"We want to make sure that we know where the arms and munitions go when we deliver," he said.
"At this stage they won't be airdropped. We will be landing and handing them to officials from the Peshmerga."
Air Chief Marshal Binskin acknowledged the risks, saying Islamic State terrorists had anti-aircraft weapons but would not be drawn on whether guards would be needed on the ground to protect the aircraft.
He said a Hercules had airdropped 15 pallets of food, water and hygiene packs yesterday - enough supplies for 2600 people for one day - to the northern Iraq town of Amirli, which has been besieged for two months.
A US air strike against the Islamic terrorists allowed the mission to go ahead safely. US, British and French aircraft also delivered aid.
Mr Abbott said there had been no specific requests from the US or Iraqi governments for Australia to take part in air strikes.
But he said if Australia was asked to increase its military involvement, the Government would assess whether there was an achievable objective, a clear role for Australian forces, safety risks had been taken into consideration and was there an overall humanitarian purpose that accorded with the national interest.
Mr Abbott said no role was envisaged for Australian combat troops on the ground but he could not give any guarantees.
"None of us want to get involved in another Middle Eastern war, but it is important to do what reasonably can be done to avert potential genocide," he said.
"Any military activity by Australia, over and above the humanitarian airdrops and the military airlift we've talked about now, will be along with allies and it would be at the request of the Government of Iraq."
The supply of weapons to the Kurds is a high-risk strategy given their longstanding desire for independence but military experts believe it is necessary to reverse the Islamic State's gains.
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten said Labor fully supported the weapons airlift. "Decisions like this are not made easily - Australian men and women are going in harm's way," he said.
But Tasmanian MP and 2003 Iraqi war whistleblower Andrew Wilkie said transporting weapons amounted to a declaration of war.
Greens leader Christine Milne said all other parliamentary business should be suspended this week so Australia's contribution to Iraq could be debated.
Mr Abbott dismissed as "novel" the notion the military could not be deployed until Parliament had met.
He said he would follow the long-standing convention on the deployment of troops, which was consideration by the National Security Committee of Cabinet and the wider Cabinet and in consultation with the Opposition.
It is important to do what reasonably can be done to avert potential genocide."
- Tony Abbott * Prime Minister