Australia confirms Iraq troop withdrawal
Australia's new government confirmed on Thursday that it would withdraw its troops from Iraq by mid-year, as the US defence secretary headed to Canberra for landmark talks.
The withdrawl was promised during the campaign for polls last November which saw US President Georg W Bush's close ally John Howard ousted by centre-left Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.
Australia's 550-strong battle group in southern Iraq would be pulled out in close consultation with the United States and Britain to minimise disruption, said Foreign Minister Stephen Smith.
"It doesn't occur on one day it's a big logistical operation to put troops in and it's a big logistical operation to get them out," Smith told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
"All the assessments are that the military situation in Iraq has substantially improved over the last 12 months or so," he said, noting that Rudd's Labour Party believed "we shouldn't have been there in the first place."
Smith will meet US Defence Secretary Robert Gates during his visit for annual talks in Canberra this weekend the first time the Labour government will host the security conference.
Gates will be accompanied at the talks by Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte.
Both countries have been at pains to stress that the change of government in Australia and its withdrawl of troops from Iraq will not harm relations between them.
Australia will still have about 1,000 military personnel in and around Iraq, including a 110-strong security detachment in Baghdad, and personnel for Hercules and Orion aircraft based outside Iraq and a warship in the Gulf.