updated 4/8/2008 7:17:17 PM ET 2008-04-08T23:17:17

Australia has offered to take in hundreds of Iraqis who have worked for its troops, in recognition of the danger faced by those helping foreign forces, officials said Tuesday.

Defense Minister Joel Fitzgibbon said that humanitarian visas would be offered to Iraqis who worked as translators, interpreters and in other jobs for Australian troops. The workers' families would also be eligible.

Australia joined the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, and still has about 1,500 troops in and around the country. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has vowed to bring home the 500-strong contingent of combat troops by mid-2008.

Spain, which withdrew from Iraq in 2004, offered asylum to dozens of Iraqis who helped Spanish troops or diplomats. Poland has also pledged to help local civilian workers when it withdraws troops from Iraq.

But the U.S. — which has by far the largest foreign presence in Iraq — has come under intense criticism for failing to admit a bigger trickle of the more than 2 million Iraqi refugees, particularly those who have worked for the military, American agencies and contractors.

By May 2007, the U.S. had admitted fewer than 800 refugees. The number increased sharply after the Bush administration put in place new screening guidelines, but the figure continues to fall far short of targets. To date, over 3,500 Iraqis have been admitted to the U.S., according to government figures.

Up to 600 humanitarian visas were expected to be issued under the Australian plan. The candidates would be hand-picked by Australian officials and only allowed into Australia after undergoing strict health, character and national security checks.

"Anti-coalition forces have deliberately targeted individuals working with Australian troops and their partners in southern Iraq," Fitzgibbon said. "In response, the Australian government will adopt a new visa policy to enable the permanent resettlement in Australia of locally engaged employees and their families at risk because of their engagement with the Australian Government."

A similar resettlement plan was adopted by Denmark, as it withdrew its combat troops in 2007, for about 200 Iraqi interpreters and other aides who worked for Danish troops in the country's south.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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