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Australians Keep Pocket of Baghdad Secure

July 12, 2003

BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) _ Cpl. Mark Stanborough sends an Australian-tinged ``Salam Allaikum,″ or ``peace be upon you″ to the Iraqis standing at their front gates. He signals his patrol to move forward and get in position, crouching low with guns at the ready.

An Australian light armored vehicle rumbles into view followed by more infantrymen. After a short inspection of this upscale Baghdad neighborhood, the patrol from the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Australian Regiment returns to base.

Australia, which contributed 2,000 troops during the war, has assigned soldiers to this one section of Baghdad to protect its diplomatic mission and provide security.

Others are charged with air traffic control at Baghdad International Airport, and an Australian Navy Frigate is stationed in the Persian Gulf.

Residents were relieved when the Australians began their patrols. Many of the houses in the neighborhood were targeted by looters after the fall of Baghdad in April.

``It’s a rich area, so they had a lot of thieves coming here to steal,″ Bird said. ``They like having us here, especially the kids.″

At the diplomatic mission, boys wait outside the gates to talk to the soldiers. One Iraqi child walked up to Bird and, holding out his hand, gave a traditional Australian greeting: ``G’day mate,″ he said with a thick Iraqi accent.

``They talk to us mostly about sports, they like Lleyton Hewitt and Patrick Rafter, there’s lots of tennis fans in Iraq,″ said Maj. Mick Birtles, the officer in command.

Inside an empty building near the Australian mission where the soldiers are based, troops sit around a table eating traditional Anzac biscuits. A jar of Vegemite, Australia’s world-famous staple spread, sits on a shelf, together with more treats from home.

During the war, Australians conducted special forces operations behind enemy lines, and sent navy divers to clear mines from Iraq’s rivers and coast.

Officials won’t say how many Australian troops remain in Iraq, but Australian Army spokesman Capt. Andrew Bird said 70 soldiers were here guarding the mission and its staff.

Many of the men served in East Timor, when Australia led an international force to quell militias after the province voted to break away from Indonesia in 1999. Some had also served as peacekeepers in Afghanistan.

This regiment are professional soldiers and live on a base in Townsville, along Australia’s northeastern coast.

The worst thing about the Iraqi summer is not being able to drink a cold Australian beer, they said. Iraq is an alcohol-free zone for the Australian Defense Force.

Stanborough said there were bigger disappointments as well. His wife, Tammy, gave birth July 5 to the couple’s first child, and he missed it.

``I’m sad about it, but this is also the opportunity of a lifetime,″ he said.

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