Melbourne, Apr 9: Australia will resettle up to 600 Iraqis who had been working for its combat soldiers and diplomats in the country, amid fears they could face retribution after the troops are withdrawn.
More than 100 civilians, who worked as interpreters and support staff in security and reconstruction operations in Iraq, were expected to bring another 500 family members with them. Australia was an original member of the U S-led coalition that invaded Iraq in 2003 and has about 1,500 troops in and around the country. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has promised to bring home 550 combat troops by mid-2008.
The decision to save the Iraqis will lessen the likelihood of a repeat of the Vietnam experience, in which large numbers of local employees were abandoned to retribution in re-education camps or driven to dangerous sea voyages as refugees.
Australian soldiers and security consultants in the West Asia have expressed grave concern about the Iraqis, saying unless they were rescued their loyal service would be rewarded with certain death.
Immigration officials are preparing to travel to Iraq and neighbouring nations to process applications.
Defence minister Joel Fitzgibbon said the first Iraqis to be resettled would be those working with Australia's Overwatch Battle Group in southern Iraq, who had been threatened by the insurgents.
The group would leave Iraq in July.
''Anti-coalition forces have deliberately targeted individuals working with Australian troops and their partners in southern Iraq,'' the Age quoted Mr Fitzgibbon as saying.
The Government would adopt a new visa policy to enable the permanent resettlement in Australia for locally engaged employees and their families.
Immigration Minister Chris Evans said the employees and their families would be granted permanent humanitarian visas after strict health, character and national security checks.