Troops Iraq withdrawal ‘well timed’

AUSTRALIAN troops will be withdrawing from an Iraqi region at the right time, British Defence Secretary Des Browne said today.

The Federal Government will withdraw in mid-year the 500-member Australian battlegroup based at Tallil in southern Iraq under British command.

Mr Browne, who is visiting Australia for talks with Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon, said Britain had planned accordingly for an Australian drawdown of troops.

“As it turns out, where they are working in Iraq is in an advanced stage of its own independence in terms of providing its own security,” he said in a speech at the National Press Club.

“Coincidentally, it was probably about time they were coming out of Tallil anyway so it works out in a way that suits all of us.”

Britain still has about 4000 troops in southern Iraq.

Mr Browne said the UK Government understood Australia had made the decision to withdraw its troops because Labor had pledged to so in last year’s election.

He said Britain was grateful to the people of Australia and to the troops for their “magnificent” contribution to Iraq.

“So we essentially pat them on the back, thank them and look forward to working with them in the future somewhere else,” he said.

Mr Browne said he believed the tide was turning in Iraq.

“We have seen a (Iraqi) prime minister who is confident enough in his democratic mandate and his ability to lead to say ‘I will take the sovereign decisions as to how security will be spread across my country’, albeit substantially supported by us and other members of the alliance principally the US, with enormous success,” he said.

Mr Browne said he had walked the streets of the southern city of Basra last week, something not possible for the last two years.

“I sat in a roadside cafe and drank tea. I have never been able to do that before,” he said.

“I now have the sense that as far as Iraq is concerned, that if this substantial improvement we have seen over the last couple of months is maintained and accelerates at this rate, then we are not just at the end of the beginning then perhaps at the beginning of the end.”