ACT Leader of the Opposition Jeremy Hanson, a former officer in the Australian Army tasked with training the Iraqi Army throughout the 2007 surge, has described the takeover of Iraqi towns by al-Qaeda affiliated militants as a great tragedy for the Iraqi people.
Fighters from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), a breakaway group from al-Qaeda, seized control of Iraq’s second largest city Mosul on Tuesday before taking control of Tikrit – the birthplace of Saddam Hussein on Wednesday.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Shiite-led government is increasingly struggling to retain control of Sunni-majority regions, and his army collapsed in the face of the Islamist advance.
Mr Hanson, who was deployed to Camp Cooke in Taji some 30km north of Baghdad in May 2007, said the advance of ISIL in recent days had dashed hopes of democracy and peace in the divided country.
"It’s going to be very difficult to know how this will play out but as always it will the Iraqi people who ultimately suffer," he said.
"It is difficult to see this situation resolving itself well."
Mr Hanson said he and his fellow servicemen had hoped democracy would flourish in Iraq with free elections although it was clear this had not been the case.
"What could have been a power sharing arrangement between the two groups hasn’t eventuated and the Sunnis as a result feel marginalised and excluded from government, just as the Shiites did under Saddam Hussein," he said.
Mr Hanson said the ISIL offensive and the deterioration of any power sharing arrangement had left him feeling disappointed with the legacy of his service.
"In terms of the Australian commitment to Iraq, I am very proud and think we did a good job but everyone would be concerned and disappointed with what’s happening in Iraq at the moment," he said,
Mr Hanson said the Iraqi soldiers he trained, who are now responsible for defending cities from the militants, were a mixed bag of men with ranging experience and characters but were generally very enthusiastic.
"There were some older guys who had served under Saddam Hussein and had horrific stories and there were some extremely talented officers who spoke English well and were exceptional people," he said.
"But there were many who were straight off the streets with no experience. They got five weeks of training before going out on the front line to fight – that’s not a long time."
Mr Hanson said a good friend of his, an Iraqi brigadier who established a logistics training team at Camp Cooke in 2005, was killed by a roadside bomb shortly after he left the country.
"I was friends with him and he was someone I respected and worked closely with," he said. "It was a very dangerous place."
Mr Hanson said the spill over from the conflict in Syria into Iraq had certainly exacerbated the situation although he maintained the problems facing the country were complex and multifaceted.