Bush loses close Iraq ally as Australian troops pull out

Members of the combat team Waler arrives at a parade signaling the end of operations at Tallil in southern Iraq and handing over security responsibility to US forces. (AFP)

US President George W. Bush lost a close ally in the Iraq war as Australian combat troops pulled out Monday to honour an election pledge by the new centre-left government.

As the Australian flag was lowered in southern Iraq the conservative former leader John Howard, ousted by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd last November, defended his decision to commit the nation to war.

"I firmly believe it was the right thing to have done," said Howard, one of Bush's staunchest supporters in the "coalition of the willing" which invaded Iraq in March 2003.

Howard acknowledged, however, that the cost of the war had been "very, very heavy and much greater than anybody would have liked."

The former leader was speaking to the Sydney Morning Herald in a rare post-election interview as Australia's 550-strong combat force began leaving its base at Tallil, some 300 kilometres (1,875 miles) south of Baghdad.

Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon told a news conference it was the "right time" to pull the troops out, adding that the military was overstretched by commitments in Iraq, Afghanistan and East Timor.

Australian commandos were among the first coalition troops to cross into Iraq, but as the war dragged on the role of the main Australian force was limited and no soldiers were killed in combat.

While the invasion was founded largely on faulty intelligence about Iraq's possession of weapons of mass destruction, the US also accused former president Saddam Hussein of supporting Osama Bin Laden's Al Qaeda, which attacked New York and Washington on September 11, 2001.

Howard said his decision to enter the war was influenced "partly by the fact that I had been in America at the time of the (September 11) attack and because of what terrorism represented."

"Back in 2001, 2002 through to 2003, it was widely believed in America that there would be another attack. We tend to forget that now," he said.

Before his election defeat, Howard had been Bush's last major partner in the coalition that once included former prime ministers Tony Blair of Britain, Jose Maria Aznar of Spain and former Polish president Aleksander Kwasniewski.

Opinion polls had shown that most Australians opposed the country's involvement in Iraq, and Bush dubbed Howard a "man of steel" for his commitment despite the war's unpopularity among voters.

Howard said Australia's contribution to the invasion was "deeply appreciated" and had strengthened the nation's alliance with the United States.

Former foreign minister Alexander Downer echoed the comment, saying that without its military involvement "Australia would have just become a bit-player in global events."

An editorial in the Sydney Morning Herald, however, notes that senior government advisers said they had fully briefed the Howard government on the likely negative long-term consequences of the invasion.

These included the destabilisation of the Middle East, protracted hostilities, Iraq becoming a focus for extremists, damage to US prestige and the growth of anti-Western sentiment.

"Of course the costs - financial, strategic and in terms of human suffering and lost Iraqi and American lives - have been even higher than predicted," the paper said.

Canberra will still have 1,000 personnel deployed in support of the war but only a small security and liaison force will remain in Iraq itself. Most will be working from nearby countries on two maritime surveillance aircraft and a warship which helps patrol offshore oil platforms.