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Australia signals it will extend Iraq mission
Updated: 2005-12-09 08:53

Prime Minister John Howard indicated Australia would extend the deployment of its troops to Iraq to continue guarding Japanese military engineers operating in the south of the country.

Japan announced on Thursday that it would keep its 600 troops in Iraq until late next year, about a year longer than planned.

Australia deployed about 450 soldiers in May to help guard the Japanese contingent and Howard said late Thursday that they would pursue their mission in line with Japan's decision.

"We'll continue to work with our Japanese friends, we'll continue to provide security," he said.

"It has been a good partnership between Australia and Japan. It's important that Japan retains a presence in Iraq and we intend to be part of that continuing presence," he said.

Howard has declined in the past to set a firm timetable for Australia's deployment in Iraq, though the current rotation of troops was due to end in May.

"It is unlikely we will be out by May," Howard said on radio Friday morning.

"It is far more likely ... and this will depend a great deal on how things unfold, that we will be there for a longer period," he said.

Howard said he would discuss details of the deployment with his Japanese counterpart Junichiro Koizumi during an East Asian Summit in Kuala Lumpur next week.

Howard has been one of US President George W. Bush's strongest foreign allies and contributed troops to the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 despite strong opposition to the move at home.

Australia sent extra troops to southern Iraq in early May to protect Japanese troops, who are barred from combat under a pacifist 1947 constitution imposed after World War II by the United States.

The Japanese are carrying out humanitarian reconstruction work in Iraq's relatively peaceful southern province of al-Muthanna.

The Australian troops are also training members of the Iraq security forces.

Howard denied that a decision to extend the Australian deployment marked a policy shift for his government.

"This is nothing new. I see no point, given the commitment that has been made in Iraq ... at flagging withdrawal at the very time when the government and the people of Iraq need reassurances of support," he said.

He also stressed that Koizumi had not set a specific timetable for Japan's deployment.

"That doesn't mean automatically that the Japanese unit will stay there the entire 12 months," he said.

A defense spokesman for the opposition Labor Party, Robert McClelland, criticised Howard's decision as a diversion of military resources away from security priorities in Australia's home region.

"It also sends the message to the interim administration in Iraq that the pressure is not on them," McClelland said on ABC radio.

"In other words the pressure is not on them to get their act in order and take responsibility for their own security."

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