Prime Minister John Key has just flown out of Iraq after a secret visit to the New Zealand troops at Taji Military Camp - a dramatic two days in a place Mr Key described as a "god-damn awful place".
Mr Key's trip to meet the New Zealand trainers and troops in Taji was kept under wraps until after he left Iraq early this morning for security reasons. The trip was nearly jeopardised by dust storms grounding aircraft. They delayed his visit by a day and almost left him marooned in the military camp in one of the world's hottest conflict zones for an extra night.
His trip was months in the planning and a small group of media including the New Zealand Herald accompanying him were required to keep it confidential until he had left the war zone.
During the visit Mr Key and his entourage, as well as the media, were protected by a team of elite SAS troops, who have not been deployed in Iraq.
About 106 New Zealand troops are based alongside 300 Australian personnel at Taji to train Iraq security forces. Mr Key is the first leader of the coalition countries based at Taji to visit the base since the United States moved back in to help Iraq battle Islamic State in 2014.
Mr Key visited to see first-hand the conditions the troops were working in and fulfil his promise to visit when he announced that deployment in February.
He described Camp Taji - a flat, dusty place built of concrete in the middle of the desert - as a "god damned awful place".
"It's sort of beige and it's a tough operating environment. And our people are out there working - when they start telling you it's 40 degrees and 'cool' - well, what does hot look like?"
Temperatures were about 40 degrees during Mr Key's visit but a few weeks ago were peaked above 55 degrees.
He said his visit had reassured him about the safety of the troops in the compound.
"A successful operation for us is not just upskilling the Iraqi armed forces, it's getting all of our men and women home in one piece, safe and sound."
The troops only leave the base by air because of the risk of improvised explosive devices in nearby territories and on the road to Baghdad.
Only 16 of the 106 at Taji are trainers. About half of the total number are there to protect those trainers while the remainder are logisitics and medical staff.
Mr Key said the decision to deploy was based on advice from the Ministry of Defence, but it was he who had to make the call.
"As the person who signs off at a very personal level on whether this happens or not, I feel very intimately involved in this operation. I take personal responsibility for what happens out here and so it's important for me to be able to see it first hand."
It is Defence Force policy not to reveal the names or photos of those serving, but as the Defence Force tries to show it has become more transparent after criticism of its secrecy compared to Australia, media were able to interview staff at the base including trainers and support staff.
Those troops the Herald spoke to were about six months into their deployment and had about a month to go. All had volunteered for the posting and said they were pleased to be back in action after the gap since New Zealand withdrew most of its reconstruction team from Bamiyan in Afghanistan.
During his time in Iraq Mr Key met with the New Zealand soldiers, ate with them in the D-FAC (dining facility/ mess) and watched them training a group of Iraqi soldiers who have just begun their six-week training course. He also spoke briefly to some of the Iraqi commanders.
Mr Key said what he saw on his visit had reinforced his decision to send the troops.
"I felt very strongly about the mission before I sent our men and women here but I feel very vindicated in what we are doing."
The New Zealand troops had integrated well with the Australians and he believed the training was making a difference.
"You can see they're taking a very localised view of it and not trying to impose a New Zealand way of doing things, not trying to impose our culture on the Iraqi forces. They are using a respectful way of training them."
However, he did not believe it would justify extending the deployment beyond the two year limit he had set.
"Quite frankly this is likely to be a troubled part of the world for a very long period of time - we could arguably stay here forever. But this isn't New Zealand's engagement. I think New Zealand has a job to do here. We're doing it. I think there should be an exit point and that exit point at about two years feels about right to me."
Before travelling to Taji, Mr Key also met with Iraq's President Fuad Masum and Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi during a day in Baghdad. He said while they knew the challenges Islamic State presented, they were confident of winning.
Mr al-Abadi told Mr Key he was more concerned about freedom fighters going to Iraq to fight with Isil than Iraqis joining the group.
After a visit to the medical centre, complete with an operating theatre in a tent, Mr Key was given his formal welcome in the 36 degree desert heat. The temperatures soar to above 60 degrees in June and July.
The Army performed the Tumatauenga in which the Task Force Taji patch - a badge featuring an entwined silver fern and boomerang - was laid down as the wero. Most of the 300 Australian troops in the Task Force Taji group also came to watch the occasion.
Although New Zealand and Australia are not formally an Anzac force, they work closely together and the Taskforce Taji team has a shield featuring an intertwined silver fern and boomerang.
Mr Key spoke to Australians and New Zealanders afterwards, saying it was clear they were an Anzac force in spirit, even if not in uniform.
LONG ROAD TO TAJI
Prime Minister John Key's visit to Taji was plagued with troubles and delays at both ends - but it came from the weather rather than Islamic State or improvised explosive devices.
Mr Key's plan to fly to Taji after a day in Baghdad on Sunday was delayed by a day because a dust storm prevented the RNZAF Hercules he and his 45-strong entourage were travelling on from landing in Taji.
Instead Mr Key returned to Dubai where the Hercules ran into more problems - fog resulted in aborted landings at two different airports in the UAE before it finally landed at Dubai International Airport.
The next day Mr Key called on the help of New Zealand's partners at Taji - Australia - and hitched a ride on a Royal Australian Air Force Hercules on a scheduled 'milk run' - a delivery of mail and supplies to Taji.
There was further trouble at the end of his stay. Mr Key had to cut his day short to try to outrun a looming dust storm on US Army Chinook helicopters.
However, the choppers had to return to Taji just 10 minutes after taking off. Driving wasn't an option either - although Taji is just 25km from Baghdad, the road is a key target for insurgents with a high risk of improvised explosive devices and attacks at checkpoints.
Mr Key said he was determined to keep trying until he could make it into Taji.
"I wasn't prepared to go home until I had come here. If I'd had to sit it out a bit longer I would have. We've come a long way and it's one thing for me to go and see the politicians but my responsibility is to the New Zealanders, to come and see them."
About 100 flying days are lost each year because of duststorms in Taji.
The first sandstorm was a blessing for one member of the media who would otherwise have missed the visit to Taji - TV3's political editor Patrick Gower had to be left behind in Dubai because he left his passport at the hotel. However, the sandstorm forced Key's delegation to return to Dubai for another night and Gower was able to rejoin the party.
He had already confessed his slip-up to his bosses, saying that his "Paddy luck" had finally run out - and was delighted to discover it had returned again the next day.
Mr Key had a dramatic departure from Iraq likely for security reasons after the Iraq Prime Minister's office put photos of Mr Key's meeting in Baghdad on social media while Mr Key was still in Iraq.
That breached an embargo on coverage of his visit, despite the New Zealand side informing Iraq that his stay had been delayed and the embargo moved.
The embargo was imposed so Islamic State did not know the leader of a coalition country was in Iraq and try for an attack.
The media travelling with Mr Key were not allowed to take communications into Taji and were not aware of the breach until returning to Dubai.
Mr Key had cut his day short to try to outrun a dust storm on the U.S. Army Chinooks, which had to turn back after 15 minutes because of the dust.
The dust settled in and media were told it was likely they would stay over for another night.
However at 10.30 the RNZAF Hercules managed to land and Key, his entourage and media were scrambled to the plane.
Mr Key left Dubai soon afterward.
NZ approach to try to build trust with Iraqi soldiers
Private Marwan Razaq Tuama was studying computer science at college before he joined the Iraqi Army 18 months ago. That was after Islamic State brought its war to Iraq.
Speaking through a translator, Private Tuama said the reason was simple: the imam had put out a call for men to fight Islamic State and so he joined.
"We fight to protect our home, our family and our holy places. Daesh (Isil) are different because they are Muslim, but not really Muslim."
Now he is with the 71st Iraqi Army Brigade in the first week of a six-week training course at Taji.
The training the soldiers are doing when Prime Minister visits is targeted at the scenarios the soldiers are most likely to face against Islamic State - dealing with improvised explosive devices, working in urban areas and medical skills.
Many of the soldiers have already fought on the front line - a Staff Sergeant trainer says one proudly showed off his bullet wounds.
The site of the training is a block of abandoned buildings left when the USA pulled out of Iraq after the 2003 - 2010 Iraq War.
It was handed back to Iraq and by the time the US returned, this time at the invite of the Iraqi Government, much of the base was dilapidated and empty.
The Staff Sergeant says the old accommodation blocks might look ugly, but they make for very good training facilities.
One trainer is teaching the medical course. Lesson one was in applying a tourniquet. Lesson two is how to drag or lift a wounded colleague to safety.
The trainer demonstrates and the Iraqi laugh as their fellow soldier is dragged along the ground. ""Zen!" they call - Arabic for good.
The New Zealanders approach is to try to build trust with the Iraqi soldiers. One trainer says they start with some apprehension about their trainers.
Most have never heard of New Zealand.
The trainers take part in the exercises themselves to help it along. Many of the Iraqi have already been on the front lines.
There are also little things - black and white are the colours of Islamic State so the sleeve patch worn in Iraq is a black kiwi on a subdued khaki background rather than white.
It is a more laid back approach than that offered by the United States and aimed at building trust.
A Sergeant Major from New Zealand explains: "We do things a bit differently than they do. We are more receptive and open-minded. We don't say our way or the highway, we ask them how they do it and work with them."
He says it is not always easy - some soldiers are stuck in their ways and need to be convinced to change.
The New Zealand trainers downplay the risk of blue on green attacks. But there are precautions - they only use nicknames so their real identities are not known. No live ammunition is used until there is a rapport between trainees and soldiers. And the 'guardian angels' on sentry duty are not only there to look out from attacks from outside.
At the course for dealing with improvised explosive devices, the trainer explains that it is left to the Iraqi leader to pass on the instructions to the soldiers. One of the aims is to try and prepare the troops to re-organise and keep fighting once their leader has been killed rather than collapse and run.
The training troops are given new equipment, including guns. The commanding officer of a battalion in the 71st Army Brigade meets with Mr Key and tells him the battalion has already fought in areas such as Fallujah.
"But with all this experience we gain from the teams in Australia and New Zealand, and new equipment this is going to help us a lot to go back and fight again." He says his own family was killed by Isis.
At the medical training ground, two of the Iraqi soldiers are having troubles with the shoulder lift. They keep dropping each other and rolling round laughing.
One of the trainers tells Key that the soldiers are like soldiers anywhere.
"They have a laugh - sometimes with you, sometimes at you."
The Iraqi Army was criticised for its collapse in the take over of Ramadi by Islamic State with a top US military figure questioning whether they had the will to fight. Most of the forces the New Zealanders are facing are expected to be involved in efforts to re-take Ramadi.
At the training ground Private Tuama is asked if he thinks they can beat Islamic State he replies in Arabic: "inshallah." "God willing."