Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Australian Troops To Redeploy In Iraq

Hundreds of Australian troops are to redeploy for a more dangerous mission in Iraq, Prime Minister John Howard's government said, sparking calls to bring them home. Defence Minister Brendan Nelson said that 460 soldiers currently guarding Japanese engineers in the southern city of Samawa would move soon to the nearby city of Tallil. They would provide back-up and training for Iraqi forces who are set to take control of the southern province of Al-Muthanna, and help secure the dangerous Syrian border, Nelson said. The move is politically sensitive for Howard's government, which backed the US-led offensive in Iraq in the face of widespread public opposition. Protests have faded and the issue has largely slipped from the headlines in recent months, largely because Australia has suffered only one fatality in Iraq.But the new mission near the volatile city of Nasiriyah, where roadside bombings by insurgents are commonplace, is likely to be more dangerous. Thirty-one Italian soldiers stationed in Nasiriyah have been killed and Rome plans to withdraw its contingent, once the fourth largest in Iraq, by the end of the year. "This has the potential to be more dangerous for our soldiers," Nelson said. He said insurgents were "totally opposed to Iraqi people having the same democratic rights as Australians and other people in the world (and) might possibly want to target Al Muthanna as being the first province to go to Iraqi control." Howard said Monday that Australian troops would continue guarding the 600-strong Japanese contingent until they left the country, and called the redeployment a "sensible next step." Japan was expected to announce its withdrawal later in the day. "The aim is to have the Iraqis look after themselves," Howard said. "If we pull out too quickly ... the whole thing will fall to the ground." But political opponents seized on the news to demand the withdrawal of the 800 Australian troops. "They should be brought home right now," said Australian Greens leader Bob Brown. "Moving them from one province to a less safe province is not a good thing to do."