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Australia pulls troops out of Iraq

By CNN's Grant Holloway in Sydney

Fourteen RAAF F/A-18s have been in operation over Iraq.
Fourteen RAAF F/A-18s have been in operation over Iraq.

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CANBERRA, Australia (CNN) -- Australia has decided to begin pulling its troops out of Iraq from next month with only a handful of specialists likely to remain in the Middle East after June.

The government announced the withdrawal Thursday, adding that it was reluctant to commit peacekeeping troops to Iraq.

Australia sent around 2,000 troops to fight in the war against Iraq, including special forces, a commando unit, warships and a squadron of fighter bombers.

The Australian Special Air Services forces have been involved heavily in surveillance and reconnaissance missions inside Iraq while the squadron of F/A-18 Hornets have been flying close support missions for coalition ground troops.

The special forces have also been used to monitor the movement of people in west Iraq, in particular looking for former regime officials who might be trying to flee to neighboring Syria.

So far there have been no casualties recorded.

"Australia has provided highly effective specialist military capabilities to support the coalition's efforts to disarm Iraq," Defense Minister Senator Hill said in a statement.

"Much of their work is done -- we are now able to plan to bring home many of our 2000 personnel who have been deployed on Operation Falconer."

Prime Minister John Howard told radio listeners Thursday that two Australian navy frigates would return by the end of May, followed by the special forces and the fighter squadron.

"Those forces that were particularly at the sharp end of the conflict, and I'm thinking of the SAS and the Hornets, there is no need to keep them there any longer," Howard told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation radio.

Navy divers who have been working to clear mines from waterways around the Iraqi port of Umm Qasr are also set to return.

But some specialist Australian military personnel are traveling the other way.

Popular support

Earlier this week Defense Minister Robert Hill said a team of 12 Australian chemical weapons experts were bound for Iraq to help the search for weapons of mass destruction.

The government has also indicated military air traffic controllers will be heading for the Middle East to help the flow of humanitarian aid.

Public support for the conservative Howard government's decision to join the U.S.-led "coalition of the willing" has increased over the course of the war.

A Newspoll survey released on Tuesday showed a total of 57 percent of Australians were now in favor of their troops fighting in Iraq, compared with 36 percent opposed. This compares with 45 percent in favor and 47 percent opposed less than a month ago. (War a poll winner)

Polls taken in January showed more than three-quarters of Australians were opposed to the nation's involvement in a war in Iraq without backing from the United Nations.

Howard is scheduled to visit U.S. President George W. Bush at his Texas ranch next month to discuss the rebuilding of Iraq.

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