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By Phil Mercer
Sydney
02 June 2008

Australian combat troops have begun leaving Iraq. Their departure fulfills an election promise by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who pledged to pull his country's out of Iraq by the middle of 2008. From Sydney, Phil Mercer reports.

Australian combat team Waler arrives at a parade signalling the end of operations at Tallil and handing over security responsibility to US forces, 01 June 2008
Australian combat team Waler arrives at a parade signalling the end of operations at Tallil and handing over security responsibility to US forces, 01 June 2008
For Australia's 550 combat soldiers, the war in Iraq is over.

They have begun leaving their base at Tallil, 300 kilometers south of Baghdad, where they have been helping to train Iraqi security forces.

They have handed their military responsibilities over to American units.

In southern Iraq, a ceremony was held to mark Australia's exit from a conflict that has been widely unpopular back home.

The commanding officer of Australia's Overwatch Battle Group, Lieutenant Colonel Chris Websdane, told the departing soldiers that their mission had been a success.

"The work here is now done and it's time to return to your families and loved ones. You should be proud of your achievements. I am," he said. "You should be proud of your personal sacrifices and the part you have all played in bringing hope and prosperity to the people of Al Muthanna and Dhi Qar."

There also were words of appreciation from U.S. Lieutenant General Lloyd Austin, who is commander of the Multinational Corps in Iraq...

"The Overwatch Battle Group was instrumental in establishing self-sustaining governance and security in Al Muthanna, in improving the security situation in Dhi Qar, and in the continued development of the Iraqi security forces," he said.

Some Australian military personnel will remain in Iraq to protect diplomats and a navy vessel will continue to patrol the Persian Gulf.

The withdrawal of Australian combat troops fulfills a campaign promise of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who was swept into office in November largely on the promise that he would bring the soldiers home by the middle of 2008.

Mr. Rudd said Australia's deployment in Iraq had made his country more of a target for terrorism and that the reasons for going to war in the Persian Gulf were flawed.

The government in Canberra has been eager to stress that the Iraq pull-out would not damage its close alliance with the United States.

Prime Minister Rudd remains committed to keeping Australia's one-thousand troops in Afghanistan.

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