Australia wants Iraq troops home by mid 2008

An Australian solider guards an area during a joint street patrol with Iraqi security forces in Sammawa, south of Baghdad June 22, 2006. REUTERS/Mohammed Jalil/Pool

CANBERRA (Reuters) - About 550 Australian combat troops in Iraq should be withdrawn by about the middle of next year, Prime Minister-elect Kevin Rudd said on Friday, setting a broad timetable for the soldiers to return home.

Australia has about 1,500 troops in and around Iraq, but Rudd won power at the Australia’s national election on November 24 with a promise to bring frontline forces home.

“The combat force in Iraq we would have home by around the middle of next year,” Rudd told Australian radio.

Rudd promised a gradual withdrawal of the troops, but had been coy about setting a timetable for their return to Australia. The troops are based mainly in Iraq’s more peaceful south, where they help maintain security and train Iraqi forces.

Australia, a close ally of the United States, was one of the first countries to commit troops to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, and Australia’s former conservative government had been a strong supporter of the U.S. mission in Iraq.

U.S. President George W. Bush phoned Rudd last weekend to congratulate him on his election victory, but Rudd refused to comment on the detail or say whether they talked about Iraq.

Rudd will officially take office in Australia when he is sworn in on Monday. He said his government would start discussions with the United States on the withdrawal soon after.

“We’ll have a meeting with the United States ambassador before too long to set up the appropriate processes for discussing that through,” he said.

Rudd had also said Australian forces might continue to train Iraqi forces, but in a third country and not in Iraq.

Reporting by James Grubel; Editing by Jeremy Laurence