Last Updated: Mon Nov 01, 2010 19:56 pm (KSA) 16:56 pm (GMT)

Australian PM makes surprise visit to Iraq

The PM assured the Iraqis of a long-term partnership
The PM assured the Iraqis of a long-term partnership

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, on a surprise visit to Baghdad Friday, assured Iraq of a long-term partnership but stressed his combat troops deployed here would head home by June next year.

"Earlier today I visited Australian battle group in Talil (southern Iraq) and spoke directly to what is a fine body of men and women," the recently elected Rudd told a Baghdad news conference with his counterpart, Nuri al-Maliki.

"That battle group will come to a conclusion as of June next year. And that will be the last battle group we deploy."

Rudd also promised to continue supporting Baghdad in its efforts to achieve "security, stability and economic development," the statement added.

On November 30, Rudd said he would pull Australian combat troops out of Iraq by the middle of next year, marking a significant shift in Canberra's role in the conflict.

Rudd was elected in a landslide victory last month that ousted veteran conservative prime minister John Howard, a staunch supporter of the U.S.-led war in Iraq and a friend of US President George W. Bush.

Former diplomat Rudd had promised to withdraw the battle group from southern Iraq if elected but said he would leave behind some soldiers, including those providing security at Australia's embassy in Baghdad.

Australia has some 1,500 troops involved in Iraqi operations, although most are outside the country. Only the 550 combat troops deployed in the south of the war-torn nation are subject to Rudd's withdrawal plan.

Bush has warned that withdrawing from Iraq would encourage militants opposing his "war on terror."

Rudd, the leader of the centre-left Labour Party, has sought to allay fears that the withdrawal will hurt Canberra's strong links with its most important strategic ally in Washington.

Australia was a founding member of the "coalition of the willing" that joined the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003.

It has had a modest contingent, which has escaped serious casualties, in the country ever since.

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