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Australian leader Scott Morrison visits troops in Iraq

SYDNEY – Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison made a pre-Christmas visit to hundreds of troops in Iraq, telling them he wanted to say thank you from “one Australian to another.”

But Morrison canceled a planned visit to Afghanistan on the advice of the defense force chief due to operational security reasons.

Morrison traveled to Iraq on Wednesday to meet special forces soldiers and other Australian military personnel who are training the Iraqi Army to combat the Islamic State group.

It was the conservative prime minister’s first visit to the Middle East since he took the top job in August.

“I understand it’s a sacrifice. I understand it’s a big thing to be away from your family at this time of year,” Morrison told troops at the Taji military complex north of Baghdad. “And that’s why I’ve decided to come just to say ‘thank you’ from one Australian to another.”

Morrison broke bread with hundreds of soldiers across Iraq from before dawn until after dark. He stressed that he would honor their contributions long after their active service ended.

He said that for many troops, it would be the first Christmas away from their families and friends, while others had endured the tyranny of distance before.

“On behalf of my family, to you and your families, I want to say thank you very much for your service,” Morrison said. “But I also want to thank you as a prime minister, as the leader of the government, as a member of the Australian Parliament, on behalf of our entire nation.”

There are currently about 800 Australian soldiers deployed in Iraq, including about 300 who are involved in Task Force Taji.

The rotating group has trained almost 40,000 Iraqi soldiers since its mission began in 2015. Its focus has gradually shifted from delivering front-line training to mentoring Iraqi security forces.

Capt. Steve Moye, who is beginning his first deployment, said he has noticed an immediate impact.

“Even just in the four weeks we’ve been here, the improvement in the individual skills of the Iraqi soldiers has been exponential,” he said.

With a wife and two kids back home in Brisbane, Moye reshuffled birthday parties and opened Christmas presents early before he was deployed overseas. He said he wasn’t sure how he would cope on Christmas Day.

Handshakes and small talk gave way to brass bands and a bilateral meeting when Morrison sat down with Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi at his palace in Baghdad. Abdul-Mahdi stressed the need for ongoing security cooperation to liberate Iraq from the Islamic State group and on improving economic relations to drive investment and jobs.

“The stability of Iraq is the stability of the region, and the stability of the region would be stability for the whole world,” he said.

Blog World News

Morocco: Terrorist ties to Scandinavian hiker slaying

RABAT, Morocco – The lone suspect arrested in the killing of two Scandinavian tourists is connected to a terrorist group, and three other suspects are on the run, Moroccan prosecutors and a security official said Wednesday.

State television 2M reported on its website that authorities consider the two women’s slayings a terrorist act. Local media reported that the suspects had links to the Islamic State group.

The killing has shocked Morocco, a popular tourist destination where such attacks on foreigners are extremely rare. The bodies of the women, one Danish and one Norwegian, were found Monday in the Atlas Mountains, a destination prized by hikers.

The Rabat public prosecutor’s office said in a statement Wednesday that the only captured suspect has affiliations to a terrorist group, without naming the group.

The suspect was arrested in Marrakech on Tuesday. Three other suspects have been identified and but are still on the run, a security official told The Associated Press. The official was not authorized to be publicly named.

Broadcaster 2M released photos and videos Wednesday of forensic investigators and others working around the women’s brightly colored tent on a rocky hillside. The broadcaster said the tent held food and belongings for three people, including an ID card.

The bodies were found in a remote mountainous region, 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) from the village of Imlil — often the starting point for treks to Mount Toubkal, North Africa’s highest peak.

Moroccan media outlets reported that investigators have video surveillance footage showing three suspects putting up a tent near the victims’ tent and leaving the area after the slaying.

Authorities in Denmark and Norway have warned their citizens from hiking without local guides in Morocco.

Danish police officials said Wednesday they sent an officer to Morocco to assist in the investigation.