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Australia says job is done for soldiers in Iraq

CANBERRA (Reuters) - Australia’s top military commander said on Wednesday the job of the country’s combat soldiers in southern Iraq was done, bolstering a government decision to bring them home mid-year.

Australia's Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Australia's Minister for Defence Joel Fitzgibbon address members of the Overwatch Battle Group (West) at Ali Air Base, Tallil in the Dhi Qar province of southern Iraq, December 21, 2007. REUTERS/Australian Government Department of Defence/Handout

Ahead of weekend talks in Canberra with U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates on the planned withdrawal of 550 soldiers, Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston said Iraqi forces had not needed Australian backup for two years now.

“The situation on the ground in Al Muthanna and Dhi Qar (provinces), the Iraqis are taking care of business,” Houston told a hearing before Australia’s upper house Senate.

“The conditions on the ground have been established whereby we can leave them to it and, because we have influenced their training, we are very confident in their ability to handle the circumstances in those two provinces. The job is done.”

Australia, a close U.S. ally, has around 1,000 troops in and around Iraq, and was an original member of the U.S.-led coalition which invaded the country in 2003 to oust Saddam Hussein.

Most Australian troops are in the stable south, which has largely escaped the bloodshed in other parts of the country and which is said by Western nations to be a model for Iraqi security control.

Britain is also withdrawing some forces, but like Australia denies the draw-down represents a distancing from Washington over support for the war.

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Australia’s Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who won elections in November to sweep away almost 12 years of conservative rule, promised to bring home frontline troops amid polls showing 80 percent of Australians oppose Iraq involvement.

Instead, Canberra will send additional military trainers to Afghanistan, where it has around 1,000 troops fighting Taliban militants alongside Dutch forces in the restive south.

With NATO alliance countries under pressure to commit additional troops in the south, Houston told lawmakers Australian trainers would be embedded with Afghan security forces and could face additional combat risk.

But Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon, who has demanded access to NATO’s war plan, said the risks were manageable.

“I think that the capability we are providing will give us significant confidence that that risk is anything but unacceptable,” Fitzgibbon told Australian radio.

Gates and Fitzgibbon will discuss military progress in both Iraq and Afghanistan during yearly foreign affairs and defense talks this weekend and reaffirm their tight alliance.

Fitzgibbon is tipped to ask Gates whether Australia might be able to purchase advanced Lockheed Martin Corp F-22 stealth Raptor aircraft amid expectations Canberra is preparing to dump the A$6 billion ($5.5 billion) purchase of 24 Super Hornet fighters from Boeing.

Houston said after combat troops returned from Iraq, Australia would leave behind two maritime surveillance aircraft and a warship helping patrol offshore oil facilities, as well as a small force of security and headquarters liaison troops.

It would be another two years at least before the fledgling Iraqi navy was capable of patrolling the country’s two offshore oil terminals, he said.

Editing by Jerry Norton