Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon has paid tribute to Australia's combat troops in Iraq, saying they have succeeded in leaving a lasting legacy in the strife-torn nation.

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The 550-member Overwatch Battle Group-West has begun withdrawing from its base at Camp Terendak outside the city of Nasiriyah in Iraq's Dhi Qar province.

As the flag was lowered on Australia's combat commitment, Mr Fitzgibbon today declared the mission a success which had allowed Iraq's own security forces to successfully take control.

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The battle group gave the fledgling Iraqi army the space and time to train, grow and consolidate into a capable force that had proven itself time and time again in recent months, he said.

Australian personnel had contributed to the individual and collective training of 33,000 Iraqi army soldiers. Australian forces also helped train the Iraqis in logistics management, combat service support and importantly, effective counter-insurgency operations.

Security and training role

“While only a small element of the 3,700 ADF personnel who served in security and training roles, the Australian contribution to the Iraqi army's Counter Insurgency Academy is one of the lasting legacies of our commitment,” he said in a statement.

The start of the withdrawal from Iraq honours a Labor election promise to bring home combat troops by mid-year.

However, some 300 troops will remain inside Iraq, including the 110-member security detachment guarding Australian diplomats and others in Baghdad, and a further 500 will remain in the region, including 200 sailors aboard the frigate HMAS Stuart in the Persian Gulf.

Federal Opposition Leader Brendan Nelson has called for Australian troops to be kept on in a training role.

“From our perspective we would have liked to have seen a continuing presence of trainers to further increase the rate at which we are training the Iraqis to look after their own security,” Dr Nelson said.

Reconstruction work

Australian combat troops were deployed initially to Camp Smitty in Al Muthanna province in mid-2005 with their key objective being to guard Japanese engineers engaged in reconstruction work.

In July 2006, security responsibility for Al Muthanna was handed back to Iraqi authorities and the Australian group relocated to Tallil, taking on the overwatch role to provide in-extremis support for Iraqi authorities across the two provinces.

The success of recent Iraqi security operations in southern Iraq was in no small part thanks to the dedicated and professional role of the Australian trainers, Mr Fitzgibbon said.

The advances made in southern Iraq were obvious when compared to the environment first encountered in April 2005.

“Al Muthanna and Dhi Qar were the first provinces to transfer to Provincial Iraqi Control, heralding the beginning of a process that today has nine provinces, comprising half of the total Iraqi provinces, firmly in Iraqi government control,” he said.

Inproved security

“The improved security environment has allowed the coalition to further reduce its direct support to the Iraqis by replacing the OBG-W with a strategic overwatch force responsible for a large portion of southern Iraq.”

Australian troops still faced substantial risk, especially from improvised explosive devices (IEDs). As recently as two weeks ago, a soldier was seriously wounded in a bomb attack on an Australian armoured vehicle.

“Our soldiers have faced and responded to complex multiple IED and direct-fire attacks and of course there have been several significant contacts with anti-Iraqi forces in which Australian infantry and cavalry soldiers have quickly gained the upper hand and prevented further casualties or damage,” Mr Fitzgibbon said.

“Six Australian soldiers have been wounded during the three years of security operations in southern Iraq, and several vehicles have been damaged.”

'Mission accomplished' in Iraq: Fitzgibbon