Political editor Audrey Young gives a first-hand account of visiting Iraq with the Defence Minister.

Audrey Young's day

When the handy first aid kits are handed out by Defence Force staff in Dubai on Monday shortly before leaving for Iraq, I'm thinking how considerate.

The little khaki pack is to be attached to our day-bags at all times and that is no problem given how light it is.

It is not until we are settled into our accommodation in Camp Taji north of Baghdad that night that I explore its contents and it is clear it is not blisters, cuts, or diarrhoea they have in mind.

Herald reporter Audrey Young interviews a member of the Iraqi Security Forces at Camp Taji. Photo / NZ Defence Force
Herald reporter Audrey Young interviews a member of the Iraqi Security Forces at Camp Taji. Photo / NZ Defence Force

The little pack holds a combat grade tourniquet, a haemorrhage control bandage, nearly 4m of stretched 6-ply gauze, and an "occlusive dressing for open chest wounds".

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Our welcome officer at Taji, the Anzac training camp, gives us the low-down on what to do if we hear, "Incoming, incoming, incoming" on the loud speaker system: lie on the floor for two minutes or for two minutes after the last explosion, then put on body armour and head to the nearest shelter.

Everything visual about Taji screams danger.

Yet the first thing we see between the Hercules landing and getting settled in our metal cabins is a stream of soldiers walking along the roadside with their rolled up mats heading to Monday night yoga classes.

It is a strangely calm place because the security awareness is constant, not to mention the thousands of slabs of T-walls (shaped like an upside down T) which are designed to contain the impact of a rocket attack or explosion.

I don't have a moment's fear in our visit to Taji, except when Gerry Brownlee picks up an M16 assault rifle at a shooting range.

It's a strange existence at Taji. It is not the kind of posting in which you head into nearby Baghdad city on a weekend off. So people in Camp Taji create a world within a world in a compound within a compound.

Camp Taji is a surprisingly calm place. Photo / NZ Defence Force
Camp Taji is a surprisingly calm place. Photo / NZ Defence Force

As well as yoga, there is line-dancing, salsa, creative writing courses, two 24-7 gyms and sports. There are poker nights, fake pubs and a joint that is popular with the Australians where you can go and smoke flavoured tobacco through water pipes.

It is usually hot, dry and dusty except when it is wet and cold - and right now it is wet and muddy and a bit nippy after a torrential downpour a few days ago.

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The world cup qualifying match between Australia and Iraq was to get its own Taji version this week but the clay field is under water.

The cabins are identical but homely inside with second-hand furniture.

I share a cabin with a Lieutenant Colonel who has come from HQ in Wellington for a visit.

But she is scarce when I need an interpreter for the handout we have been given on Task Group Taji: they have a sick parade every day from 8am to 1730 which seems a bit mean.

And when moving to and from the ablutions all personnel are to wear clothing.

A note on the day's events at Taji says the address by Brownlee and Chief of Defence Force Tim Keating is for NZDF personnel only.

This is a cause of anxiety given that I have travelled too far to be excluded for that.

But before Brownlee or Keating get to hear my howls of complaint, the senior New Zealand officer at Taji says it is only Australians who are excluded, not journalists.

Gerry Brownlee lines up and fires an M-16 assault rifle. Photo / NZ Defence Force
Gerry Brownlee lines up and fires an M-16 assault rifle. Photo / NZ Defence Force

Gerry Brownlee's Day

Gerry Brownlee got in some weapons training at Camp Taji today but not from any of the Kiwis.

The tutelage came from Iraqi army officer Lieutenant Hamed Saheeh Yousef Alkinani who told him to place his feet wider apart and straight before firing the M16 assault rifle.

Run jointly with Australia, the training at Camp Taji has moved beyond basic military training of Iraqi security forces to include a junior leaders course, training of police officers and training Iraqis to train themselves.

More than 21,000 have been trained.

Brownlee also met three young members of Iraq's Ranger Battalion, a skilled infantry unit, who are training to be trainers.

Mohamed Salem and Hussain Ahmed are 25 years old and Ali Jabar is 23.

They have been in the Rangers for three years and have trained previously in Jordan and Pakistan.

Through an interpreter they say that they respect the Kiwis and "they are working as a friend".

They also made it plain to staff from Defence Headquarters in Wellington that what they want after their training is not just a certificate but a patch to attach on to their uniforms.

They are particularly taken with one produced by the US which reads: "Hunting permit, Unlimited limit for Isis, No kill limit, weapons eligible - all, expiration - never, valid everywhere".

Gerry Brownlee and Tim Keating are welcomed to Camp Taji with a powhiri and haka. Photo / NZ Defence Force
Gerry Brownlee and Tim Keating are welcomed to Camp Taji with a powhiri and haka. Photo / NZ Defence Force

Brownlee's day started with a powhiri from the New Zealand contingent of about 100.

It wasn't an ideal time for him to visit Camp Taji given it was a public holiday in Iraq and there was little training being done.

The "training audience" as NZ Defence Force describes them, is down as well after a large intake - 1912 police - graduated last month to secure eastern Mosul which was regained from Isis in January.

The current rotation of New Zealanders at Taji, 30km from Baghdad, is the fourth, and it's the third time Brownlee has visited.

He and the Chief of Defence Force, Lieutenant General Tim Keating, addressed the Kiwi contingent today, saying how much pride the country had in them and the work they were doing.

There wasn't much feedback when the floor was thrown open to questions.

One said there had been a rumour that they would not have to pay any tax while they were at Taji which Brownlee threw off as a joke.

Brownlee was presented with a framed photo of himself at the shooting range and was jokingly told by the senior New Zealand officer that he would be counted among those they had trained, at which point Brownlee said he suddenly thought that the tax rumour was a very good idea.

More than 20,000 Iraqi personnel have been trained at Camp Taji since it was set up in 2015. Photo / NZ Defence Force
More than 20,000 Iraqi personnel have been trained at Camp Taji since it was set up in 2015. Photo / NZ Defence Force

New Zealand Mission in Iraq - Taji milestones

2015

• February: PM John Key announces two-year mission of up to 143 Defence Force personnel to support training of Iraqi forces to be run alongside Australian deployment of 300. It was opposed by Labour, Greens, New Zealand First, Maori Party and United Future.

• May: Deployment begins in Camp Taji, north of Baghdad, one of four training sites across Iraq. New Zealand deployment due to finish in May 2017.

• June: Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee visits Iraq and Camp Taji.

• July: New Zealand establishes embassy in Baghdad

• October: John Key visits Iraq and Camp Taji but still insists it will be a two-year mission.

• December: US Defense Secretary Ash Carter asks all countries in the coalition fighting against Isis to increase their contribution but NZ declines.

2016

• February: 4000 Iraqi security personnel have been trained at Camp Taji.

• April: Labour leader Andrew Little visits Camp Taji with Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee.

• June: Cabinet approves extension of NZ deployment to Iraq ending November 2018 instead of May 2017.

2017

• February: It is announced that a total of 20,000 Iraqi personnel have been trained at Camp Taji since it was set up in 2015.