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Australians end front-line role in Iraq

The Baltimore Sun

BAGHDAD - Australian troops ended their main combat mission in Iraq yesterday, handing over their responsibilities in southern Iraq to U.S. forces.

An estimated 550 Australian troops, who served in a training and backup role to Iraqi forces in the provinces of Dhi Qar and Muthanna, made the transfer in a ceremony at Camp Talil outside Nasiriya, said Capt. Chris Ford, a British military spokesman in southern Iraq.

Meanwhile, U.S. officials announced that a bomb killed an American soldier yesterday in Baghdad. The military said the blast was caused by an explosively formed penetrator, an armor-piercing bomb that the U.S. military associates with hard-line Shiite Muslim militants and believes is supplied in part by Iran. It was the first American death this month. In May, the U.S. military said 19 soldiers were killed, the lowest monthly total since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003. At least 4,085 U.S. military personnel have died in Iraq since the war began.

The U.S. military says violence in Iraq has dropped to its lowest level since March 2004. The current calm relies on fragile arrangements: a deal struck by the American military with former Sunni insurgents to pay them to guard their neighborhoods or regions, as well as the decision by Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to freeze his powerful militia's armed activities. In March and April, violence soared as al-Sadr's militia clashed with U.S. and Iraqi forces. The bloodshed dropped once more after al-Sadr commanded his followers again to lay down their weapons.

Even amid the news of declining deaths, efforts to negotiate a long-term security pact that would set out how long U.S. forces stay in Iraq suffered a setback yesterday when the Iraqi government criticized proposals from U.S. negotiators and vowed to reject any deal that violated Iraqi sovereignty.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has been under political pressure to resist some U.S. demands. Street protesters loyal to al-Sadr burned American flags on Friday to oppose the deal, and al-Sadr promised that his followers would stage regular protests through the summer.

The pact, called a status of forces agreement, would address the future of U.S. bases in Iraq, immunity for U.S. soldiers and security contractors, the power of U.S. troops to detain Iraqis and conduct military operations, and control of Iraqi airspace. A U.N. resolution that authorizes the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq expires in December, and the world body is not expected to take the issue up again, leaving it to the United States and Iraq to work out for themselves.

Along with al-Sadr, the main Shiite political parties in al-Maliki's government have come out against key elements of the proposed agreement sought by the Americans. Kurds support a strong U.S. military presence, and some Sunni Arab politicians support the pact because they see the U.S. military as a bulwark against the rising power of the Shiite majority in Iraq.

"The Iraqi side has a vision and a draft different from the American vision and American draft," the Iraqi government spokesman, Ali al-Dabbagh, said. "The Iraqi government is focusing on preserving the complete sovereignty of Iraqi land, Iraqi sky and Iraqi water."

The Australian flag was lowered yesterday at the ceremony in Dhi Qar province. Ahead of his election in November, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd had pledged to end his country's front-line military role in Iraq.

Australia has said it will keep several hundred troops in Iraq to guard its diplomats and act as liaisons on security and heaquarter functions. It also intends to commit two maritime surveillance aircraft and a warship to help guard oil platforms.

Australia follows in the footstep of other American allies who have ended or drastically curtailed their work in Iraq amid domestic discontent over the war. Poland has announced its intention to end its military presence in Iraq by the end of the year. Spain became the first of America's Western allies to withdraw its forces in 2004.

In other violence yesterday, a car bomb exploded in a parking lot near the Iranian Embassy in Baghdad, claiming the lives of three civilians, police said. A traffic police colonel was badly wounded and his bodyguard killed when a bomb was planted beneath his car as he patrolled central Baghdad, police said.

Ned Parker writes for the Los Angeles Times. The New York Times contributed to this article.

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