Australian troops serving in Iraq are to stay on for another year. The announcement was made by the Australian Defense Minister, Brendan Nelson, during a surprise visit to the country. It had been expected that Canberra would start withdrawing its forces from Iraq's southern Al Muthanna province in the middle of this year.
Australia has 470 soldiers in southern Iraq. Their job is to protect Japanese engineers, and help train Iraqi security forces. The Australians were expected to start heading home in the next few months.
Speaking during a visit to Iraq in the last 24 hours, Defense Minister Brendan Nelson said that the troops' work was far from over, and the deployment would last well into 2007. It was - he said - essential that they stay and help stabilize a troubled country.
Nelson said that after 10 months in the southern part of Iraq, Australian troops had not fired a single shot in anger, and had worked closely with the local community. He thanked the Australian soldiers for their commitment.
"You know, we've got quite a way to go yet in Al Muthanna, and indeed in Iraq, but this is something of which you all and your families can be very, very proud," said Nelson.
Back home, opposition politicians expressed concern about Canberra's open-ended commitment in Iraq, when countries like Britain are preparing to leave within the next couple of years.
Robert McClelland of the opposition Labor party believes Australia should have a well-defined exit strategy.
"It seems as though every country who's involved in Iraq is now contemplating withdrawing their forces from Iraq except Australia, and there is a real risk that we will be left holding the baby, so to speak," he said.
The government of Prime Minister John Howard has been unbending in its support of Washington's campaign in the Middle East. Canberra sent two thousand troops to take part in the war against Saddam Hussein three years ago.
Critics have insisted that Australia's military involvement in the Gulf has made the country more of a target for extremists, a claim that has been flatly rejected by the Howard government.