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Sydney Morning Herald March 15, 2003

Just Quietly, They're Ready For The Heavy Lifting

By Tom Allard, Herald Correspondent

The Government gives few details but Australia's 2000 troops, preparing for war in Iraq are almost certainly spread across more than 2000 kilometres of the Middle East, from a small contingent of SAS in Jordan in the west, to ships patrolling along the Persian Gulf to the east.

Troops have been within spitting distance of Iraq and planes have flown close to its borders, but according to the military's top brass they have not joined the British and Americans in making incursions by land into enemy territory, or patrolled inside the no-fly zones in Iraq's north and south.

Despite having the tightest reporting restrictions of the countries that make up the "coalition of the willing" and a tight-lipped government, comments by US observers and mentions in foreign news dispatches give some idea of where Australian troops are.

Australians have been based at Camp As Sayliyah in Qatar, the nerve centre of military planning since last year observing US command and reporting back to the Government. Led by Brigadier Maurie McNarn and thought to now number more than 60, they are backed by a support team of communications specialists and about 20 army public affairs officials, including photographers and reporters.

Australia also has personnel at the air command centre, though its location has been the source of some contention.

Much of the lead-up work for co-ordinating the air campaign was done out of the newly upgraded Al Udeid air base, also in Qatar, where a long air strip has been built and computers, communications and intelligence equipment established so it could become an alternate command centre to the Prince Sultan air base in Saudi Arabia.

But according to recent news reports from the US, air command has already moved back to Saudi Arabia after US demands that it re-establish itself at the location from which it directed operations in the first Gulf War.

If this is the case, the RAAF's 14 F/A 18 Hornet jets will also have moved.

One defence analyst said that the FA/18s had received some last-minute electronic warfare upgrades at Al Udeid when they first arrived in the Middle East more than a month ago.

Coalition planes are expected to operate out of about 30 air bases during a war.

A regiment of 150 SAS and an extensive special forces support team make up the bulk of Australia's ground forces commitment. Most of them are thought to be in Kuwait.

Their task will involve reconnaissance work tracking down Iraqi troops which have the capability to fire chemical and biological weapons at advancing coalition forces.

The SAS are backed by commandos and troop-lifting helicopters ready to extract them if they are pinned down by enemy fire or their cover is blown. Commandos with skills in dealing with chemical, biological and radiological attacks are also understood to be in Kuwait.

In addition, there have been unconfirmed reports that some special forces, which work in small teams, are in Jordan with their US and British counterparts.

The other main element of Australia's commitment are the three ships currently enforcing UN sanctions in the Persian Gulf.

WHERE ARE THE AUSTRALIAN TROOPS?

1. CAMP AS SAYLIYAH, QATAR: Personnel in central command. Public affairs officials. Support staff for Australian headquarters.

2. PERSIAN GULF: HMAS Kanimbla with navy diver clearance team, HMAS Darwin, HMAS Anzac. Logistical support in Bahrain. R&R in Dubai. Move between Dubai, Bahrain and go as far as within sight of Iraqi land at the top of the Gulf.

3. KUWAIT: SAS. Support team for SAS including Chinook helicopters and commandos from 4RAR. Incident Response Regiment.

4. PRINCE SULTAN AIR BASE, SAUDI ARABIA: RAAF Air forward command element at the Combined Air Operations centre.

5. JORDAN: Small contingent of SAS.

Unknown FA/18 Hornets. Hercules transport planes.

Much of this information is unconfirmed. Herald research is based on observations and conversations with defence analysts; media reports; information posted on websites such as globalsecurity.org, cdi.org and stratfor.com.


Copyright 2003, John Fairfax Publications Pty Ltd