They stayed longer than most, but Australian troops in southern Iraq have begun handing over their duties to American soldiers as their country prepares to withdraw its combat forces early this summer.

While about 800 Australian noncombat troops will remain in Iraq, the departure of the 550 soldiers of the Overwatch Battle Group marks the latest U.S. ally to leave Iraq or sharply reduce its role amid opposition to the war at home.

Speaking from Tallil Airbase midway between Baghdad and Basra, where the Australian group is stationed, Lt. Col. Chris Websdane called his country’s participation in Iraq a “historical period for the Australian Army” and said his troops felt “privileged to be able to contribute to the coalition effort.”

He said the two southern provinces patrolled by the Australians have made significant progress despite a recent spate of fighting he attributed to the spillover effects of the battle further south in Basra, which he said had been quickly contained.

But polls show that only about one-third of Australians support their country’s presence in Iraq. Following through on a campaign promise, newly elected Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced in December plans to withdraw ground forces.

Australia will keep a headquarters unit based at Camp Victory near Baghdad and a security force that protects Australian assets in the capital’s International Zone, each with about 100 members. Roughly 600 navy and air force troops assigned to a “dual-force” mission encompassing Iraq and Afghanistan will also remain, a spokesman for the Australian Defence Force said.

“There has been some speculation that Australia is abandoning the coalition, but that is not the case,” said Brigadier Damian Roche, the commander of Australian forces in Iraq. “We’re reducing our ground force, but Australia remains just as committed to the coalition and just as committed to the future of Iraq.”

Still, the departure of the troops, who are being replaced by the 1st Brigade, 82d Airborne Division, continues a trend that has left the U.S. increasingly alone in Iraq. About 10,000 non-U.S. troops remain in the coalition — including the departing Australians — down from about 23,000 in the months after the 2003 invasion. The British, whose 4,000 troops outside Basra make up the largest non-U.S. contingent, have announced plans for further reductions, though those plans were put on hold after fighting erupted in March, three months after the British turned control of the southern port city over to Iraqi authorities.

Websdane, the Australian commander, said the fighting in Basra had produced some “knock-on” violence in his area, especially in the city of Nasariyah, where Shiite militias clashed with Iraqi forces and troops saw an uptick in roadside bombs and mortar attacks, including one that killed three U.S. soldiers at Tallil. But no attacks have been reported since mid-March, he said.

Besides patrolling the predominantly Shiite Dhi Kar and Al Muthana provinces, the Australian troops have spent much of their time training Iraqi soldiers and policemen.

Websdane said he believed provincial elections likely to be held later this year, when backers of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr are expected to challenge incumbents loyal to the current government of Nouri al-Maliki, would be key in determining the future of the southern Shiite provinces.

“We’ll be watching with a lot of interest,” he said. “There’s a lot of internal Iraqi politics left to play, but I think many Iraqis are sick of militia-backed politics, especially since March.”

In a statement, U.S. Brig. Gen. Nicholas Matern, a deputy commander with Multi-National Corps—Iraq, praised the Australians for their work in the provinces.

“The Australian government and its people have always been our staunchest ally, and the coalition will always be thankful for their part in bringing about a safe and secure Iraq,” he said.

Websdane’s battle group is the fourth to deploy to Tallil over the past two years. Australian troops also deployed to southern Iraq in 2005. Two Australian soldiers have been killed in Iraq, one in 2005 and one in 2006, according to In all, 13,700 Australian troops have deployed to Iraq, according to the Australian military.

About 1,000 Australian troops remain in Afghanistan, where five have been killed.

Both Australian commanders said the troops set to leave Iraq will go with mixed feelings.

“The soldiers put a lot of effort into their mission, believe in it and are prepared to give their lives for it,” Websdane said. “We leave here somewhat saddened that we will no longer be able to see the continued fruits of our labor, but the decision has been made at the government level and we are the army. We comply with the government.”

In the meantime, the Australians continue their work and do other things, too. They recently held a demonstration of Australian rules football and played a cricket match against a team from the British Army.

“We won,” Websdane reported. “But of course, we always beat the English.”

Largest ally military contingents in Iraq

Britain: 4,000 (plans for further reductions on hold.)Georgia: 2,000 (indicated plans to stay through 2008.)Australia: 1,300 (pulling out combat troops next month.)

Sources: U.S. military, Brookings Institution

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