Defense chief says Australian combat troops in Iraq should be withdrawn

>CANBERRA, Australia (AP) – Australia’s 550 combat troops based in southern Iraq have helped to make the area more secure and should now be withdrawn, the defense chief said Wednesday.

Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston told a Senate panel that planning was under way to withdraw the 550 soldiers based in Dhi Qar Province as well as 65 army trainers.

His government was elected in November with a promise to remove Australia’s combat troops from Iraq by mid-2008.

The troops have been on standby to offer backup to Iraqi forces in the south for the past two years but were no longer needed, Houston told the committee.

“We have achieved our objectives in southern Iraq,” Houston said. “It’s time to leave. The job is done.”

Houston, who has previously criticized the Iraqi government for not taking responsibility for its own national security, now praises its commitment.

“The government of Iraq and its security forces have demonstrated a high level of resolve to work along side coalition forces,” he said.

Iraqi security forces’ capabilities had grown significantly through coalition training programs and new equipment, he said.

“I’m very pleased to say that the security situation in Iraq has improved significantly over the past 12 months,” Houston said.

“Despite periodic escalations, there has been a downward trend in sectarian and other forms of violence in this period,” he said.

Al-Qaida had suffered significant casualties and had lost influence in Iraq, he said.

“Iraqis are increasingly opposed to al-Qaida’s disruptive role in Iraq,” Houston said.

“However al-Qaida remains capable of mounting high casualty attacks despite the damage inflicted on it by Iraqi and coalition forces,” he added.

Houston said Australia currently has 1,540 military personnel in and around Iraq, including a naval frigate guarding oil wells plus surveillance and transport aircraft.

Australia sent 2,000 troops to back the U.S. and British military in the Iraq invasion in 2003. President Bush recently said he hoped that Prime Minister Kevin Rudd would reconsider his pledge to withdraw troops.