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Australia Offers Sanctuary to Iraqi Workers


Australia will offer a permanent home to hundreds of its Iraqi employees when Canberra pulls its combat forces out of the troubled country later this year. There are fears these employees could face retribution after Australian troops are withdrawn. Phil Mercer reports from Sydney.

When senior Australian government ministers recently visited Iraq, their country's soldiers urged the government not to abandon Iraqi employees when Canberra withdraws its combat units later this year.

Defense Minister Joel Fitzgibbon has acknowledged that Iraqis may face danger because they work for the Australian forces in the south of the country. He says some have been targeted by insurgents.

Fitzgibbon says all locally hired employees and their families will be eligible to settle in Australia.

"We expect up to 600 Iraqis will be involved in the process," he said. "Interpreters and translators there have played a very significant role in assisting us in terms of strategy and of course, protection. And we do feel that we have a moral obligation to them, to resettle them here in Australia."

The Iraqis who accept Australia's offer will be subject to strict health and security checks.

Australia has about 1,500 military personnel in and around Iraq. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has promised to bring home 550 combat troops by the middle of this year.

The government in Canberra wants to avoid a repeat of the Vietnam War. After the war ended, thousands of Vietnamese working for the Australian and American forces were persecuted or killed by the victorious North Vietnamese government.

Some human rights groups criticize the plan to grant visas to Iraqi translators and other employees. They say that that thousands of other refugees who have fled the war in Iraq also deserve to be offered sanctuary.

Australia resettles about 13,000 refugees each year through official humanitarian programs. Large numbers of Iraqis and displaced people from Afghanistan have been allowed to build new lives in Australia in the past several years.

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