Prime Minister Tony Abbott has played down concerns troops could be sent to Iraq, after announcing Australia’s involvement in military airlifts.

Australia will join the dangerous mission to arm Kurdish fighters against Islamic State extremists in the north of Iraq by taking part in an international airlift of military equipment.

But Tony Abbott played down talk that Australian troops could be sent into the country, saying there was no role “envisaged” for boots on the ground.

The prime minister on Sunday announced Australia would be part of the international effort to deliver arms and munitions to Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, with the first mission to be undertaken “in coming days”.

Royal Australian Air Force C-130J Hercules and C-17A Globemaster aircraft will be involved in the airlifts, which also include Canada, Italy, France and the United Kingdom.

Chief of the Defence Force Air Chief Marshal Mark Binskin said the operations wouldn’t take the form of an airdrop – but Australian personnel will deliver the equipment by hand.

“We want to make sure that we know where the arms and munitions go when we deliver,” Air Chief Marshal Binskin said.

“They will be landing and handing them over to officials from the Peshmerga.”

Australia’s involvement in the airlifts sparked concerns that troops could soon enter the conflict with the Greens and independent Andrew Wilkie warning of “mission creep”.

Australia has already been heavily involved in humanitarian airdrops to civilians caught up in the fighting, prompting Greens leader Christine Milne to question if airstrikes and troop deployment were next.

Both demanded Australia’s involvement in the Iraq conflict be debated in parliament.

“If we’re going to start, where is it going to end?” Senator Milne asked.

“It is more important than ever that the prime minister tells Australians what is the strategy here, what are we going to commit to.”

Parliament should have been involved in the airlift decision, Mr Wilkie said.

“If Tony Abbott wants us to be gun runners for the Kurds at the behest of the United States then we are part of the war,” he told reporters in Hobart.

But Mr Abbott said no request for troops or airstrikes had been made the Iraqi or US governments.

“None of us want to get involved in another Middle Eastern war, but it is important to do what reasonably can be done to avert potential genocide,” he said.

Mr Abbott dismissed a Greens call for parliamentary approval of military deployments, and defended the decision making process involving the National Security Committee and cabinet.

“This government’s intention is to abide by the standard conventions which have always been applied to the deployment of Australian military forces,” he said.

The prime minister described events in Iraq as a “humanitarian catastrophe”, and pointed to the tens of home-grown radicals involved in the conflict.

“If it is right to kill in the name of God in Iraq, there is no reason to think that the same people won’t do likewise … in Australia,” he warned.

“While we understandably shrink from reaching out to these conflicts, the truth is that these conflicts reach out to us.”

Labor leader Bill Shorten – consulted by Mr Abbott ahead of the announcement – gave bipartisan support to the weapons airlifts.

The Peshmerga fighters were the only thing standing between civilians and insurgents, he said.

“This is happening because of one reason – there are vulnerable people who need help and they need it now,” he told reporters in Melbourne.