Australia on Wednesday said it would resettle up to 600 Iraqis who had been working for its combat soldiers and diplomats in the country, amid fears they could face retribution after the troops are withdrawn.
"Interpreters and translators have played a very significant role in assisting with strategy and protection, and we feel we have a moral obligation to resettle them in Australia," Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon told local radio.
Australia was an original member of the US-led coalition that invaded Iraq in 2003 and has about 1,500 troops in and around the country. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has promised to bring home 550 combat troops by mid-2008.
Fitzgibbon said Canberra did not want to repeat the mistakes of the Vietnam War, after which hundreds of employees of both Australian and United States forces were believed to be persecuted or murdered. The same could happen to Iraqi employees, he said.
"Anti-coalition forces have deliberately targeted individuals working with Australian troops and their partners in southern Iraq," Fitzgibbon said in a statement.
All the Iraqis, mostly translators and administrative staff, would be subject to strict health and security checks, he said, and would be resettled under a new visa, following nomination by Australian troops and diplomats on the ground.
Spain and Denmark offered resettlement to Iraqi employees and their families after their troops pulled out of the country in 2004 and 2007.
Fitzgibbon said Labor's decision did not mean a relaxation of tough immigration laws for Iraqi asylum seekers and others introduced by the previous government.
"There are 13,000 other places available in the broader humanitarian program so any other people who are able to demonstrate that they face persecution on any grounds are able to make application under the broader program," he said.
Human rights lawyer Greg Barns said the government should broaden the policy to include other Iraqis displaced by a war Australia had supported.
"There's a huge Iraqi refugee problem around the world who've been displaced by the war in Iraq and a lot of those people I think would be dismayed that their applications to come to Australia are taking much longer than those who stayed and have helped the Australian army," Barns told Australian radio.