UK in talks to hand Iraq role to Australia,00.html

Michael Smith
July 10, 2005

BRITAIN is negotiating with Australia to hand over military command of southern Iraq to free up British troops for redeployment to the front line in Afghanistan.

An announcement is expected within weeks that several thousand British soldiers are to be sent to Afghanistan.

The prospect of Australia taking command at the Basra headquarters will be a key item in talks that John Howard, the Australian prime minister, will be holding next weekend with Tony Blair and President George W Bush.

Howard, who is also considering sending a few hundred troops to Afghanistan, insisted last week that Australia would remain in Iraq “until the job is finished”.

Australian SAS soldiers are already taking over from their British counterparts in southern Iraq to allow up to two British special forces squadrons to Afghanistan, senior defence sources said.

If Britain hands over command, American commanders are keen for Australia to take over. However, there is widespread opposition to the Iraq war in Australia.

“A framework has been devised between Britain, America and Australia in which the UK will take the frontline role in Afghanistan,” said one senior defence source.

“The aspiration is that the Australians will take over command of Multi-National Division South-East. But the whole issue of Iraq is very delicate in Australia, as it is here.”

Kim Beazley, leader of the opposition Australian Labor party, called last week for the Canberra government to withdraw its troops from Iraq before committing more forces to Afghanistan.

Delicate negotiations have been under way for some months to determine exactly how many troops the Australians can offer to replace British soldiers based in Iraq.

Australia could easily take command of the relatively peaceful southeastern region, but it has limited numbers of support troops and up to 2,000 British soldiers will remain in Iraq under Australian command.

In Afghanistan, British troops will form a big part of Nato’s 5,000-strong Allied Rapid Reaction Corps, which will take command of allied operations in the country early next year. There are currently just over 1,000 British troops in Afghanistan and 8,500 in Iraq.