In the heart of Baghdad, a formerly unnamed New Zealander living in a shipping container in a military compound is involved in the campaign against Isis (Islamic State, also known as Isil) at the highest levels.

Hugh McAslan has the exhausting title of Deputy Commanding General of the Coalition Joint Force Land Component Command Iraq - Operation Inherent Resolve - otherwise known as CJFLCC-OIR " or "C-jay-flick" for short.

The operation is housed in a compound that includes the former headquarters of the Baath Party of Saddam Hussein.

The appointment of McAslan was announced mysteriously last August.


It didn't mention his name or that he was the commander at Linton Army Camp or had served in Bosnia, South Lebanon, Jerusalem (UN), in East Timor and Afghanistan.

It simply described his rank, a brigadier in New Zealand, which is consistent with New Zealand Defence Force policy not to name personnel stationed in Iraq.

But after he was cited by name and nationality in international media including the New York Times, NZDF decided it was okay to name him - and interview him.

CJFLCC is responsible for training Iraqi security forces, intelligence and surveillance, targeting and fire support for the Iraqi forces, and general advisory efforts to the Iraqi Government.

"Our mission here is really clear," he says. "To militarily defeat Daesh [Isis] in Iraq and to restore Iraq's borders - by, with and through our Iraqi partners.

"With everything we do here, like on the ground with the military campaign, it's an Iraqi plan, first and foremost. We work alongside them to develop a plan and ultimately it's their plan."

He said more than one million Iraqis had been liberated from Isis, 1400 villages freed and the Iraqis were in the midst of retaking Mosul.

"Since the [Mosul] campaign started in late October in the east to where we are now, the Iraqi manoeuvre forces have developed day by day and got better and better and better."


There was a programme to develop the capability of the air force, too, and that was improving every week.

"From the Coalition's perspective, you'd have to be pretty content with where we are at and where we have come from."

Some of the shipping containers in the grounds of Saddam Hussein's former party HQ that house the anti-Isis mission. Photo / Audrey Young
Some of the shipping containers in the grounds of Saddam Hussein's former party HQ that house the anti-Isis mission. Photo / Audrey Young

The results of the campaign spoke for themselves. "This is working. It is undeniable when you look at where the Iraqis have come over the last two years. Right now they are on the brink of liberating their second-largest city and the self-declared capital of the caliphate. It has been remarkable."

Eight other New Zealanders work at the Coalition HQ, one aiding McAslan.

What does McAslan himself do?

"I do what the boss needs me to do," he says of General Joe Martin.

But he spends a lot of his time engaging with the Iraqis. He meets the Iraqi War Media Cell - responsible for public relations - at least twice a week but often daily.

"We ensure messaging is aligned. We are out there taking on Isil's narrative."

Isis was a very innovative organisation and had some very clever people working for them.

He said working alongside Iraqis was a rewarding part of the job.

"They are really optimistic about where it's going and I think that's great. You see that developing confidence every day. I have got the utmost admiration for the Iraqis. They are incredibly friendly, humble and gracious and they genuinely appreciate the work that goes on."

So what would he say to Kiwis who wonder why we are in Iraq?

"It's very important for people to understand that what we are doing here is actually helping Iraqi people to aspire to the sort of life we have - where you've got that ability for your kids to go to school, that you are not subject to a brutal occupying terrorist regime that removes those basic freedoms.

"Iraqis want pretty much what we've got."

McAslan sleeps in one of the shipping containers stacked in the compound in the surrounds of the old Baath Party headquarters, although there is little time for sleep.

The nine-month posting will end in early August and another Coalition country will fill the No 2 post.