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Australia ends combat role in southern Iraq

Troops transfer duties to U.S. forces, as their prime minister moves to fulfill his pledge.

June 02, 2008|Ned Parker | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — Australian troops ended their main combat mission in Iraq on Sunday, handing over their responsibilities in southern Iraq to U.S. forces.

An estimated 550 Australian troops, who served in a training and backup role to Iraqi forces in the provinces of Dhi Qar and Muthanna, made the transfer in a ceremony at Camp Talil outside Nasiriya, said Capt. Chris Ford, a British military spokesman in southern Iraq.

Meanwhile, U.S. officials announced that an American soldier was killed Sunday in a bombing in Baghdad. The military said the blast was caused by an armor-piercing bomb. The U.S. says such devices are used by hard-line Shiite Muslim militants and believes they are supplied in part by Iran. It was the first American death this month.

The U.S. military said 19 soldiers were killed in May, the lowest monthly total since the American-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003. At least 4,085 U.S. military personnel have died in Iraq since the war began, according to the website icasualties.org.

The U.S. military says violence in Iraq has dropped to its lowest levels since March 2004. The current calm relies on fragile arrangements: a deal the American military struck with former Sunni insurgents in which they are paid to guard their neighborhoods or regions, as well as the decision by Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr to freeze his powerful militia's armed activities. In March and April, violence soared as Sadr's militia clashed with U.S. and Iraqi forces. The bloodshed decreased once more after Sadr ordered followers again to lay down their weapons.

The Australian flag was lowered Sunday at the ceremony in Dhi Qar province. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who was elected in November, had pledged during campaigning to end his country's frontline military role in Iraq.

His government has said it will keep several hundred troops in Iraq to guard its diplomats and act as liaisons on security and headquarters functions. It also intends to commit two maritime surveillance aircraft and a warship to help guard oil platforms.

Australia follows in the footstep of other U.S. allies that have ended or drastically curtailed their work in Iraq amid domestic discontent over the war. Poland has announced its intention to end its military presence in Iraq by the end of the year. Spain in 2004 became the first of America's Western allies to withdraw its forces.

British troops in Basra province now serve in a backup role at the request of Iraqi forces. British troop numbers have dropped from 18,000 in May 2003 to 4,000. Italy, which once stationed combat troops, now provides training to the Iraqi national police.

In other violence Sunday, a car bomb exploded in a parking lot near the Iranian Embassy in Baghdad, killing three civilians, police said. A colonel with the traffic police was badly wounded and his bodyguard was killed when a bomb exploded beneath their car in central Baghdad, police said.

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ned.parker@latimes.com

Times staff writers Caesar Ahmed and Usama Redha contributed to this report.

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