Australia to review troop levels in Iraq by 2007

SYDNEY (AP) — Australia will review its troop deployment to Iraq by the end of this year, Defence Minister Brendan Nelson said Wednesday — the first time the Australian government has signalled a possible timeline for withdrawing its troops.

Australia — a staunch US ally — has around 1,320 troops in Iraq and the Middle East, including 460 troops guarding Japanese reconstruction efforts in Iraq’s southern Muthana province.

Earlier this week, the Iraqi government announced that Australian and British forces would soon hand over security responsibilities in the province to Iraqi forces. Japan subsequently announced its withdrawal from the region.

Australia’s 460 troops in Muthana province will be transferred to an air base in Tallil, about 100 kilometres southeast of their current posting in Samawah, when Japan withdraws, Nelson said.

He said the troops will provide training and “back up” for Iraqi security forces as necessary, a role that could increase their chances of being drawn into combat. Most Australian forces currently don’t have front-line roles.

He said Australia would evaluate the success of the Iraqi forces in protecting Muthana province before reassessing its military presence in Iraq.

“I can assure you that the next six months in al-Muthana is going to be extremely important for our future involvement in Iraq,” Nelson told the Channel Seven television network. “If we can see that the provincial Iraqi government in Al Muthana can successfully manage its own affairs and its own security then I would expect that by the end of this year we would be starting to think about our future deployment.” The minister said he expected Iraqi forces would soon assume security responsibility over the entire country, and would then ask coalition partners to withdraw.

“At that point Australia will then move to withdraw,” Nelson said.

Australia’s conservative Prime Minister John Howard sent around 2,000 troops to Iraq in support of the US-led invasion in 2003, despite widespread public opposition. He has repeatedly said that Australia will remain in Iraq for as long as its troops are needed, or until the Iraqi government asks them to withdraw.

Howard has repeatedly refused to answer calls from opposition lawmakers to set a timeline for bringing troops home.

Nelson earlier warned that militants might step up attacks in Muthana once foreign troops leave.

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