Australia says it will send 450 more troops to Iraq

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The Independent Online

Australia will send 450 more troops to southern Iraq to help protect Japanese engineers and bolster democracy, The Prime Minister John Howard announced today, going back on a pledge not to boost significantly his country's contribution to the coalition.

Australia will send 450 more troops to southern Iraq to help protect Japanese engineers and bolster democracy, The Prime Minister John Howard announced today, going back on a pledge not to boost significantly his country's contribution to the coalition.

Australia, a staunch US ally, sent 2,000 troops to take part in the invasion of Iraq and still has nearly 900 troops in and around the country. The decision to join the invasion sparked the biggest peace protests in Australia since the Vietnam War.

"This has not been, is not and will not be an easy decision for the government; I know it will be unpopular with many," Howard said. The Australian troops will replace Dutch soldiers who had been serving in the al-Muthana province of southern Iraq but are scheduled to pull out by mid-March.

"I believe this is the right decision," Howard added. "It will make a significant contribution to the coalition effort; it will make a significant contribution to the rebuilding of Iraq."

The opposition Labor Party accused Howard of misleading Australians ahead of his October re-election by saying the government had no plans for a dramatic increase in troops. Labor had pledged to withdraw troops by Christmas.

"We the Labor Party have said that as far as Iraq is concerned, we need to be differently engaged, not more deeply engaged," Beazley said.

Howard said after visiting Baghdad last April that Australia lacked the capacity to increase its commitment by hundreds of troops. "I can definitely say we won't be adding hundreds; I can definitely say that we're not going to have a capacity to put more regular soldiers on the ground," Howard said at the time.

Howard said he made the decision to send more troops to Iraq following phone calls from Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and British Prime Minister Tony Blair. British forces are responsible for security in the region.

"We welcome the decision and praise it highly," Japan's Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura said in a statement. "It encourages the international community that has been making efforts to rebuild Iraq."

Howard said it would take about 10 weeks for the new troops, which includes a cavalry squadron, infantry company and a team to train local forces, to prepare for their trip to Iraq and that they would likely stay there for a year.

He described the region where the troops will be sent as "relatively benign" and said he believed two Dutch troops had been killed there since the end of the invasion.

Howard stressed that the Japanese forces needed to be protected for the sake of the coalition in Iraq.

"The Japanese presence in Iraq as part of the coalition operation, albeit of the humanitarian kind, is a very important one and if it were to disappear then I think that would, both in substance and in symbolism, be a very bad thing."

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