Australian troops to extend mission in Iraq, PM says

Prime Minister John Howard said Friday hundreds of Australian troops protecting Japanese forces in Iraq likely will extend their mission for as long as the Japanese remain in the strife-torn country. Japan said Thursday it would keep about 600 troops in the southern Iraqi city of Samawah on their non-combat mission that is limited to purifying water and other aid tasks. Australia has 450 troops in the region protecting the Japanese and training Iraqi troops. "They will certainly stay to May and could well stay beyond May," Howard said of the Australian contingent.

"It is unlikely we will be out by May. It is far more likely ... and this will depend a great deal on how things unfold, that we will be there for a longer period," he added in an interview with the Southern Cross Radio network.

Australia is guarding Tokyo's troops because Japanese military action is strictly limited under the country's U.S.-drafted 1947 constitution that bans Japan from offensive military action. Howard is a strong supporter of the coalition in Iraq. Defying widespread public protests against the move, he sent 2,000 elite troops to take part in the invasion of the country and still has more than 1,300 military personnel there.

Howard said coalition forces would likely remain in Iraq until the country is more stable and able to manage its own security. "Over time if democracy can be further introduced and begin to be consolidated and the local security forces continue to be enhanced, then you can then start looking at some kind of wind-down of foreign forces," he said.

"I don't want our forces to stay any longer than necessary," he added. Robert McClelland, who speaks on defense issues for the opposition Labor Party, said Canberra should be fighting terror closer to home rather than investing in military operations in Iraq. "The government should instead be focusing our security efforts on fighting terrorism in our own region," he said in a statement.

"Australia's open-ended and open check book approach to our participation in Iraq is fundamentally flawed. Taxpayers have already forked out A$1.2 billion (US$900 million; Ђ765.05 million) and the bill is still rising," he added, reports the AP. I.L.

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