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Australian Troops to Stay in Iraq

Hundreds of Australian troops will remain in southern Iraq and begin supporting local security forces in stabilizing the country, Defense Minister Brendan Nelson said Tuesday.

Canberra has 450 troops near the town of Samawah in southern Iraq protecting a team of 600 Japanese non-combat forces involved in humanitarian work.

While Tokyo has not made any official announcement about a military withdrawal, Japanese news reports say the troops could begin returning home as soon as this month.

"We will move some time over the next three to four months pending the movement of the Japanese to supporting the overwatch program," Nelson told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio.

"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," he added.

Australia, a staunch supporter of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, repeatedly has said it will keep forces in the country until they no longer are needed.

Nelson's comments came a day after Britain said it would cut its forces in Iraq by 10 percent, or about 800 troops, by May because Iraqi forces are becoming more capable of handling security.

Australia has a total 1,320 troops in and around Iraq, including the forces in the south, a diplomatic protection unit in Baghdad and the crew of a navy ship patrolling the Persian Gulf.