After spending half an hour with Ron Mark last week, it is clear the Defence Minister's first-hand experience in Iraq has changed his mind about a) calling Iraqis cowards and b) opposing New Zealand's deployment of over 100 Kiwi troops who have helped to train more than 30,000 Iraqis.

It is also clear, without him spelling it out, that he will be recommending to cabinet colleagues that the deployment who work alongside the Australian Defence Force continues past November.

He said when he met Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and Defence Minister Erfan al-Hayali he wanted to find out if New Zealand was welcomed, valued, whether it was making a difference, and whether they wanted New Zealand to stay.

"What came back was 'boy are we appreciated, boy are we valued.'"


The theme that came back from all he spoke to in the Government, the military, and Australians in the joint mission was that not only were the New Zealand professional and experienced but that culturally they fitted in.

Mark said he had seen it himself 38 years ago while serving in the Multinational Force and Observes in Sinai – "the ease with which New Zealand Defence Force personnel can blend into another environment, another culture where there are differing religious beliefs and customs."

"A lot of it is around the Maori stuff and the culture but it is also around the values and the ethos of our Defence Force," he said.

"We have no ulterior motives for being there. We have no reason other than to try and help Iraq peace and stability to its people."

Mark said the Australians at Taji base also appreciated New Zealand and the joint mission blended well.

"When you get welcomed on with a powhiri and you see an Australian colonel leading the powhiri, welcoming you in te reo Maori and taking part in the haka with Australians in the kappa haka group as well, you quickly sense that that Aussie New team is pretty well integrated, that Australians value what we do and how we do it.

Mark delivered his damning epithet on Iraqi "cowards" as an opposition MP in the wake of the battle of Ramadi from which Iraqi troops fled in 2015 – and recaptured from Isis in 2016. No one raised it while he was in Iraq.

"The Iraqi leadership, the Iraqi command and the Iraqi soldiers are different to what they were then," said Mark.


"It that respect New Zealand is one nation that has made a hell of a difference. The Iraqis tell you that."

He had congratulated the Prime Minister and Defence Minister on their "stunning victory."

"They have transformed and I absolutely acknowledge that. They are a different Army."

He said that given the same scant information he had from the New Zealand Government at the time of the deployment in 2015, he would have remained opposed.

The focus of Mark's discussions in Iraq and later at an anti-Isis conference in Rome and at Nato in Brussels was what a post-Isis Iraq would require.

One report put infrastructure reconstruction at $100 billion.

Civil servants would require training and mentoring – health, education, justice and police.

There would be a requirement to transition the military out of direct frontline contact with civilians and transitioning police in.

Even though Isis had been defeated, there was still a need for training.

Mark took Justice Minister Andrew Little and National MP Simon O'Connor with him and Mark said Little made it clear in briefings that civil liberties and human rights were paramount to New Zealand.

New Zealand's 110 Defence Force personnel at camp Taji and at bases in the region have a mandate from the previous Government to November 2018 but decisions about its future need to made well in advance of that expiring.

Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop on a recent visit to New Zealand asked for an extension of the Kiwi mandate.