CANBERRA, Australia, April 14 (UPI) -- Hundreds of Australian troops will be deployed to help train Iraqi security forces battling Islamic State insurgents, Australia's prime minister said Tuesday.
Speaking at a press conference in Canberra, Prime Minister Tony Abbott said 330 Australian Defence Force troops, along with 100 military personnel from New Zealand, will be sent on a two-year non-combat training mission about 30 miles north of Baghdad. The mission is set to begin in May.
"I can't tell you that this is risk free," the BBC quoted Abbott as saying.
The move comes as U.S. officials say Iraqi security forces have gained back large amounts of territory from IS. Pentagon spokesman Col. Steve Warren said Tuesday that Iraq had recaptured 5,000 to 6,000 square miles of territory from IS forces in the past eight months -- comprising between 25 percent and 30 percent of Iraqi land controlled by the Sunni extremist group since it blitzed into the country last summer.
Abbott noted the Iraqi military's recent recapture of Tikrit and other "incremental gains by the Iraqi forces and the Kurdish forces" while also pointing out the vast amounts of Iraqi territory still under IS control.
The joint Australian-New Zealand force will gradually replace 200 special forces commandos currently stationed in Iraq who are expected to be drawn down over the first half of 2015. Since last September, Australia has also deployed an extra 400 support personnel and six F/A18 fighter jets to the country. It is a member of the U.S.-led bombing campaign against IS forces in Iraq known as Operation Inherent Resolve.
Speaking to reporters about the plan in February, Australian Defense Secretary Dennis Richardson said a two-year effort "would be optimistic."
"The U.S. defense spokespeople have talked about a minimum of three years," The Sydney Morning Herald quoted Richarson as saying. "I think that would certainly be more realistic."
Abbott characterized the mission as a matter of Australian national security. The Australian government estimates that 90 of its citizens are fighting abroad with IS, while another 140 living in Australia are offering the group support.
Last September Australia raised its threat level to "high" after officials cited concerns over Australian citizens returning home after fighting alongside IS forces in Iraq and Syria. It did so again in January.
Abbott's announcement comes four months after a gunman later identified as self-proclaimed Islamic cleric took 19 hostages in a Sydney coffee shop, killing two before being shot to death by police.