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Iraq Transition

Australia sending more Iraq troops

By CNN's Grant Holloway, in Sydney

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SYDNEY, Australia (CNN) -- Australia will boost its troop commitment to Iraq by more than a half, the government announced Tuesday, following a request for help from the United Kingdom.

Between 450 and 470 more personnel will be sent to Iraq to help protect Japanese engineers based in the south of the country and to assist in training Iraqi soldiers.

The deployment will be for 12 months, with an additional two rotations at six-month intervals after that.

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.

At a media conference in the Australian capital Canberra Tueday, Prime Minister John Howard acknowledged the decision might not be a popular one.

"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.

He estimated the additional troops would cost the taxpayer between Aust. $250 million to $350 million ($185 million to $260 million) a year to keep in Iraq.

The decision was made after an initial request by the United Kingdom, which is responsible for the overall security in the south of Iraq including al-Muthana.

A phone call from Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to Howard also played a key role in deciding the issue.

The Japanese engineers in al-Muthana are involved in road and school construction, but Japanese troops are barred by that nation's constitution from taking part in direct military action.

Howard said that unless the Dutch troops were replaced, "there was a real possibility the Japanese would not have been able to remain there."

"Japan is a major regional partner of Australia. The Japanese presence in Iraq as part of the coalition operation, albeit of a humanitarian kind, is a very important one. And if it were to have disappeared, then I think that would have both in substance and symbolism had been a very bad thing," the prime minister said.

Australia, a staunch U.S. ally, sent 2,000 troops to take part in the invasion of Iraq and still has nearly 950 troops in and around the country.

The new detachment will come primarily from the Darwin First Brigade and will include a cavalry squadron, infantry company and a team to train lraqi forces.

It is expected to be 10 weeks before the troops arrive in Iraq.

"I believe this is the right decision," Howard said. "Iraq is at a tilting point."

He said the extra troops were "now all the more essential" in the light of the "very successful" election held on Jauary 30.

"It will make a significant contribution to the coalition effort; it will make a significant contribution to the rebuilding of Iraq."

The number of troops to be deployed was made after taking advice from Australia's top military commanders, Howard said.

Last month Australia was forced to relocate its diplomatic staff in Iraq to inside a U.S. military base in Baghdad after the embassy was attacked by a suicide bomber.

Australia's main opposition Labor Party had vowed to withdraw Australia's troops from Iraq if it won the general election held last November, but that policy has now been rescinded.


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