Australian troops to provide front-line combat support in Iraq

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Operation Catalyst: Australian and Japanese troops in Iraq, March 2006. Source ADF

Australian troops in southern Iraq will shift to an "overwatch" role, says Defence Minister Brendan Nelson. Australia has around 460 troops in southern Iraq engaged in training the Iraq military and guarding Japanese military engineers. Dr Nelson says the soldiers currently on rotation in Iraq as part of Operation Catalyst will soon provide "front-line combat support" for coalition troops.

"We will move some time over the next three to four months pending the movement of the Japanese to supporting the overwatch program," he told ABC radio. "So what we will be doing is we will be supporting the Iraqi security forces, Iraqi police and Iraqi local government in administering and managing their own affairs. And we will respond to requests from the Iraqi government."

Overwatch was "a support program" that involved "providing covering fire to coalition allies in Iraq." The Australian deployment was expected to end around July this year, but Dr Nelson has said the mission would now continue into next year. His statement followed the British announcement that it would withdraw 800 troops from Iraq in the next few months.

"The British and the Americans are looking at significant draw downs in two to three years. We haven't set any such timeline... I think we will be there into 2007... We haven't committed to another two to three years unlike the Americans. We take it on a day-to-day, week-to-week, month-to-month basis," said the Minister.

Dr Nelson ruled out Australian troops being deployed to more dangerous areas, such as Basra, where the British troops have been based. But he declined to say whether the new mission will be more risky. He says "everything the troops do in Iraq is associated with danger."

On March 7th, Australian Greens Leader Bob Brown slammed the Howard government's determination to keep troops in Iraq, as American and British troops are withdrawn. "Australian troops are being subject to thoughtless bravado by John Howard and Brendan Nelson and they need to be brought home immediately," Senator Brown said.

Operation Catalyst is the Australian Defence Force (ADF) contribution to the rehabilitation and reconstruction of Iraq. Operation Catalyst currently comprises approximately 1320 Australian Defence Force personnel.