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Australian PM Visits Iraq - 2004-04-25


Australia's Prime Minister John Howard has made a surprise visit to Iraq for a dawn service honoring soldiers who fought during the ill-fated allied campaign at Gallipoli in 1915, in which thousands of Australian troops were killed. Mr. Howard flew into Baghdad amid tight security. Australia was part of the invasion of Iraq and has about 850 military personnel stationed in there.

Automatic gunfire could be heard beyond Baghdad international airport during Australian Prime Minister John Howard's surprise visit.

Wearing camouflaged body armor, the prime minister brushed off the danger of his trip, insisting that Australian forces in Iraq face greater perils. He spoke to the Australian troop at a service inside Baghdad's airport compound.

"And on behalf of your fellow Australians, I say thank you for what you are doing in our name," he said.

Mr. Howard's surprise visit coincides with Anzac Day, which remembers soldiers who fought with the Australia New Zealand Army Corps at Gallipoli in Turkey during World War I. Both sides in the conflict suffered massive casualties.

The battle is considered a pivotal moment in Australian history. It achieved independence from Britain in 1901 and the Gallipoli campaign was seen as a heroic defeat by a fledgling nation breaking free of its colonial past. Marches and ceremonies are held on Anzac Day across Australia.

At the service in Baghdad, Mr. Howard paid tribute to what he called the great tradition of commitment and sacrifice by Australian troops.

Australia sent 2,000 troops to join the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and Mr. Howard's conservative government insists its remaining troops will stay. The 850 troops remaining include soldiers protecting Australia's diplomatic staff, instructing Iraqi service volunteers, air force air traffic controllers and naval crews in the Persian Gulf.

Australia's opposition Labor Party says it will withdraw troops by the end of the year if it wins an upcoming federal election. Opinion polls show most voters do not like the idea and share the government's view that Australian troops should stay in the Middle East until their job is done. So far, there have been no Australian combat casualties in Iraq.

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