BAGHDAD, Iraq — The third largest contributor to the coalition that toppled Saddam Hussein announced Wednesday that its forces will now be used primarily in support roles.

“Australia has ended combat operations and has now moved into the next phase,” said Air Cmdr. Graham Bentley, the country’s top officer in the region.

The next phase, he said, is dubbed Operation Catalyst. During this operation, which has no set end date, Australian forces in and around Iraq will be doing what they have largely already been doing.

For example, a team from the Royal Australian Air Force has been manning the air traffic control tower at Baghdad International Airport.

An explosive ordnance disposal team has helped clear hazards in Baghdad, particularly at the city’s zoo.

The HMS Sydney, a frigate, will continue to patrol the waters off Iraq until it is replaced by the HMS Newcastle. Two C-130 aircraft carry cargo and help in aid missions.

Bentley, the equivalent of a one-star general in the American military, listed several smaller missions in which the country’s personnel — roughly about 1,000 across the region — are participating.

He acknowledged that there is still isolated fighting in the country, but said Australian troops will not play active combat roles.

“It doesn’t mean the war is over,” he said.

And it doesn’t mean Australian forces are leaving the country — at least not all of them.

Fighter aircraft and special operations personnel who took part in the fight to drive Saddam from power have returned home.

Most, if not all, of the current personnel in the region won’t spend the new year in Iraq. Bentley said tours last from three to six months.

“Everyone is aware of exactly the amount of time they are here for,” he said.

Asked about troop morale, he said: “Morale is very high. The troops are here to do a job. They know what the job is and they’re getting out and doing it.”

He sidestepped a question comparing the Australians’ situation to that of their American counterparts’.

Many U.S. servicemembers don’t know when they’re going to leave the country.

“Everything contributes to morale,” he said. [Knowing an end date] will be a factor.”

Bentley said the Australians haven’t suffered any casualties since major fighting ended around the end of April. In fact, they didn’t lose a servicemember during the fighting, either.

“We are not on the front lines as much as the other coalition troops,” he said. “We have been involved in a couple of incidents, but we have not had anybody injured.”

With forces from other countries coming into Iraq, the Australians, headquartered at Victory Camp on the outskirts of Baghdad, are no longer No. 3 on the coalition force structure behind American and British forces. That distinction probably falls to the Italians, who have about 3,000 personnel in the country.

Bentley said Australia, currently involved in peacekeeping missions in East Timor and the Solomon Islands, has no plans to significantly change the number of troops it has in Iraq.

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Kent has filled numerous roles at Stars and Stripes including: copy editor, news editor, desk editor, reporter/photographer, web editor and overseas sports editor. Based at Aviano Air Base, Italy, he’s been TDY to countries such as Afghanistan Iraq, Kosovo and Bosnia. Born in California, he’s a 1988 graduate of Humboldt State University and has been a journalist for almost 38 years.

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