Australia Finally Pulls Troop Out of Iraq

Five years and three months after the coalition invasion began, Australia's combat role in Iraq is over.

The withdrawal of 550 troops, from a mission that resulted in no combat casualties, fulfils an election promise by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to bring the soldiers home this year.

A flag-lowering ceremony overnight at the Tallil air base, 300 kilometres south of Baghdad, marked the moment Australia handed over its operational role to the Americans.

The soldiers coming home are from Overwatch Battle Group (West) 4, which has been providing security for Iraqi forces in the south, and helping with reconstruction and aid work.

About 1000 troops will remain in the region on naval ships, C130 Hercules, P3C Orions, at coalition HQ and the security detachment for the Australian embassy in Baghdad.

Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon said last night that the conclusion of the two missions at Tallil marked the completion of Australia's combat role in Iraq.

"Our soldiers have worked tirelessly to ensure that local people in southern Iraq have the best possible chance to move on from their suffering under Saddam's regime and, as a Government, we are extremely proud of their service," he said.

The withdrawal of the Australians leaves the US with only two other major coalition partners in Iraq - Britain, which has about 4000 soldiers in Basra, and Georgia which has about 2000 deployed in other provinces.

The lowering of the flag overnight closes one chapter in an acrimonious debate that followed Australia's decision to join the invasion in March 2003, a commitment that has cost the country $3 billion.

This includes about $500 million spent on reconstruction and forgiven debt.

Successive Labor leaders pledged to withdraw forces, including Mark Latham's controversial "troops home by Christmas" vow in early 2004, while former prime minister John Howard argued that premature withdrawal from Iraq would boost terrorism.

But in line with Labor's election pledge, the 516 troops from the Overwatch Battle Group and the 60-person Australian Army training team will start returning home over the next fortnight after a six-month deployment.

In recent weeks, the soldiers carried out joint patrols to introduce incoming coalition forces to the area and to local Iraqi leaders.

Not everyone is pleased the Australian troops are leaving.

"We are against … American forces in the area because they are using weapons while the Australians didn't do anything harmful against the people all the time they were in the province," said teacher Hassan Mohsin, 32.

"I think the return of the Americans to the city will cause many problems. They will make many arrests," said shopkeeper Abdullah Muzhir.

More than 3500 Australian troops have served in the two southern provinces, Al Muthanna and Dhi Qar, since Australia took on an oversight role in April 2005, helping train up to 30,000 Iraqi police and security staff. The provinces were among the first to be handed over for control by the new Iraqi security forces, with foreign troops playing a support role.

Australian forces have survived the five-year engagement without a combat death, although 27 troops were wounded, six of them in southern Iraq.

Three Australian casualties during the conflict were a result of mishaps or clashes under foreign command.

SAS Warrant Officer David Nary was killed in a training exercise in Kuwait; Private Jake Kovco died mishandling his weapon in barracks in Baghdad; and Paul Pardoel was serving with the British when his RAF transport plane was shot down in 2005.

Australia's allies have been circumspect about Australia's withdrawal plan, with American leaders saying they accepted it was an election pledge.

On a visit to Canberra last week, British Defence Secretary Des Browne said the Australians would be withdrawing at the right time, declaring Iraq was "in an advanced stage of its own independence in terms of providing its own security".

Mr Browne said that Britain was grateful to Australia and its troops for their "magnificent" contribution in Iraq.

In April, US ambassador to Australia Robert McCallum said Washington harboured no hard feelings over the Federal Government's decision to withdraw Australia's troops.

Australia Defence Association spokesman Neil James said the move would have occurred whether Labor or the Coalition had been elected last year, although Mr Howard as leader might have left a training team behind.

Mr James said the withdrawal would help relieve the overstretched defence force, cutting the proportion of its infantry and cavalry deployed overseas from about half to a little under one-third.

A look at the jouney to and fro Iraq reveals:

January 10, 2003
Prime minister John Howard announces Australia's initial forward deployment will include two naval frigates, an amphibious transport ship and 150 SAS troops.

March 20, 2003
Australia joins the "coalition of the willing". The US-led forces invade after Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein ignores a US deadline to leave. Howard tells the nation that "the Government has decided to commit Australian forces to action to disarm Iraq because we believe it is right, it is lawful and it's in Australia's national interest".

May 1, 2003
US President George Bush declares victory in the "Battle of Iraq".

December 2003 Saddam is captured.

March 2004
Opposition leader Mark Latham pledges to bring Australia's 850 troops in Iraq home by Christmas if elected prime minister, making the future of the troops an election issue.

October 9, 2004
Howard government re-elected.

January 30, 2005
First free elections in 50 years held in Iraq.

February 22, 2005 Australia decides to commit 450 additional troops.

April 2006
Private Jacob Kovco dies in the Baghdad barracks when his fi rearm discharges. December 30, 2006 Saddam is executed.

February 2007
Howard announces he will send up to 70 more Australian troops to Iraq despite growing public and political opposition to the war. New opposition leader Kevin Rudd opposes sending any more troops to Iraq and repeats that a Labor government would pull all 520 Australian combat troops out of the country if elected.

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