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Australia ends combat operations in Iraq

  • Story Highlights
  • Move fulfills campaign promise by Australian PM Kevin Rudd
  • Ex-PM John Howard says he is "baffled" by Rudd's decision, reports say
  • About 1,000 Australian troops to remain for non-combat roles
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(CNN) -- Australian forces have completed combat operations in Iraq, ending a five-year commitment to the war.

The Australian Army lowered its flag at Camp Terendak in the southern Iraqi city of Talil on Monday, turning over security responsibility for Muthanna and Dhi Qar provinces to U.S. forces. The 550 forces stationed at the camp will return home in the coming weeks.

Another 60 combat forces who worked throughout Iraq are also completing their deployments.

"Our soldiers have worked tirelessly to ensure that local people in southern Iraq have the best possible chance to move on from their suffering under (Saddam Hussein's) regime and, as a government, we are extremely proud of their service," said Joel Fitzgibbon, Australian Minister of Defence.

"Since commencing the training role, (Australian Defence Force) personnel in southern Iraq have contributed to the individual and collective training of 33,000 Iraqi Army soldiers."

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and his Labor government were elected in a landslide victory last year on a campaign pledge to withdraw combat troops by mid-2008.

Australia committed troops to the U.S.-led coalition during the government of former Prime Minister John Howard.

Howard, Rudd's predecessor, said in Australian news reports that he was "baffled" by the decision to withdraw the troops.

"If I had been returned at the last election we would not have been bringing (troops) home, we would have been looking at transitioning them from their soon-to-be terminated role to a training role," Howard told the Sydney Morning Herald in an interview published Monday.

In January, Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith said U.S.-Australian relations remained the backbone of Australian security. He said the withdrawal of combat troops from Iraq won't be "anything of any significance in terms of a long-standing, enduring alliance which will last, in my view, for many, many years to come."

He added, "Administrations come and go, governments come and go, but the fundamental, underlying, indispensable nature of the Australia-U.S. alliance continues."

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About 1,000 Australian troops will remain in and around Iraq in non-combat roles, according to the Ministry of Defence, including providing security for diplomats, conducting maritime surveillance patrols, providing intelligence assistance and conducting logistical operations.

Two Australian troops died during the war in Iraq.

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