SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott on Wednesday declined to rule out sending combat troops to support U.S. air strikes in Iraq, amid a growing confrontation with radical Islamists who have seized large swaths of that country and neighboring Syria.
Abbott was asked by a journalist whether “boots on the ground” were needed to push back the Islamic State militant group, which on Tuesday released a video purporting to show the beheading of a second American journalist, Steven Sotloff.
“Many countries are talking to one another about what is the best way forward here but plainly ISIL is a threat not just to the people of the Middle East, but to the wider world,” he said, using an acronym for the Sunni militant group.
“This is a conflict which we understandably wish to avoid, but it is a conflict which sadly, is reaching out to us, as we have seen.”
The United States resumed air strikes in Iraq in August for the first time since the pullout of U.S. troops from the country in 2011.
The raids followed major gains by Islamic State, which has declared an Islamic Caliphate in areas it controls in Syria and Iraq.
Although Australia is not a NATO member, its troops fought alongside the coalition in Iraq and Afghanistan, and it is expected to accept formal membership in the coalition’s Enhanced Partnership Program at a summit later this week.
Australia has also joined a multinational relief effort, dropping military equipment and aid to Kurdish forces fighting Islamic State militants in northern Iraq, and Abbott has previously refused to rule out participating in air strikes.
Former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, who served as ambassador to Iraq from 2009-2010, said the beheading of Sotloff should be a wake-up call to the world and that only a military solution was realistic at this point.
“I think a military solution is being developed, needs to be developed. I don’t see there’s any negotiating with these people. I don’t see there’s anything that can be done with them diplomatically,” he told Reuters in an interview.
“I know people have said things like that in the past and been proven wrong, but I mean, we are dealing with people who are really at the extreme edge. So, I think we need to work that through militarily.”
Reporting by Matt Siegel; Editing by Nick Macfie