Australia is sending 600 troops and aircraft to the Middle East in preparation for U.S.-led military action against Islamic State (IS) jihadists in Iraq.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott said Washington had specifically requested that Australia take part in the international mission against the Sunni militants who have captured large swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria.

Tony Abbott says the Islamic State group is a “murderous death cult” that poses a threat not just to the people of the Middle East, but to the whole world, including Australia.  Canberra is deploying 400 air force personnel and 200 Special Forces soldiers who will act as military advisers to Iraqi troops or the Kurdish Peshmerga.

They will be based at a U.S. facility in the United Arab Emirates.  Eight Australian super hornet fighter jets will also be on standby to join a multinational effort to halt the advance of Islamist militants in Iraq.

Prime Minister Abbott says this remains essentially a humanitarian mission, and his government has not yet made the decision to send combat troops to fight on the ground.

Former Australian army chief, Peter Leahy, says that could be the next step.

“It is not at all surprising, and as the prime minister stressed he said they could be used, so let us see this as a preliminary operation.  But if they do get involved in operations, in support of humanitarian efforts and to interdict ISIS, frankly it is the right thing to do.  We cannot accept this sort of behavior on the world stage,” he said.

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Australia will join a coalition of nations, including the United States, Britain, France, Canada, Jordan, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.

Abbott’s decision has the support of the main Labor opposition, but the Greens party leader, Christine Milne, accused the government of “blindly [following] the United States into another war in Iraq and Syria.”

Last week, Canberra raised its domestic terror alert to ‘high’ for the first time because of the likelihood of attacks by Australian citizens returning from conflicts in Iraq and Syria.

Abbott’s announcement came after IS released a video purporting to show the beheading of captured British aid worker David Haines. Previously, Sunni militants had murdered two U.S. journalists in similar barbaric fashion.

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