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Wed 20 Feb 2008 12:00 PM

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Australia plans Iraq withdrawal

Top military chief looks to pull 550 troops from southern provinces after completing their mission.

Australian troops in southern Iraq have completed their mission, clearing the way for them to return home mid-year, the country's military chief said Wednesday.

Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston said the pullout would likely have occurred even without a change in government late last year, when the centre-left Labor Party was elected partly on a platform of withdrawing Australian troops.

Houston said Australian troops in Iraq's Al-Muthanna and Dhi Qar provinces had successfully handed responsibility for security to local forces almost two years ago and had not been called on to provide back-up in that period.

"In all cases, the hard part, the part which requires confronting the people causing trouble, they (Iraqi forces) have come out on top," he told a parliamentary committee.

"It has been a very pleasing outcome, we have achieved our objectives in southern Iraq. When you look at the two provinces, it's time to leave."

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd vowed to withdraw Australia's 550-strong battlegroup from southern Iraq, before his win in November over his conservative predecessor John Howard, a staunch ally of US President George W. Bush.

Australia will still have about 1,000 military personnel in and around Iraq, including those working on Hercules and Orion aircraft based outside Iraq and a warship in the Gulf. A 110-strong security detachment in Baghdad is charged with protecting embassy staff and other officials.

Houston said it was likely to be some time before Iraqi forces could replace the warship, which guards Iraq's two offshore oil terminals.

"They still have a long way to go in that regard," he said.