Facing increasing criticism for the Iraq war at home and abroad, US President George W. Bush found an exception in the company of Australia's Prime Minister John Howard. The Australian leader announced Wednesday that he would not reduce his country's troop levels in Iraq. Australia has about 1,500 troops in Iraq, with about one-third of those in combat roles. Still, both countries may see changes in their roles after the US commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, gives his Iraq progress report to Congress next week.
Speaking to reporters, Prime Minister Howard pledged to President Bush that his government had no plans to scale back Australia's military forces in Iraq within the near future. The Australian prime minister also said that he and Bush have been closely aligned in the war on terror since their first meeting on Sept. 10, 2001, a day before the terrorist attacks rocked New York City and Washington, D.C., reports The Sydney Morning Herald.
"As a consequence of that meeting and the horrific events that horrifically followed the [next] day, the paths of our two countries have been parallel in so many ways in the fight against terrorism and the promotion of democracy and freedom around the world," Mr Howard said.
"In our discussions I made it very clear to the President that our commitment to Iraq remains," he said. "Australian forces will remain at their present levels in Iraq, not based on any calendar but based on conditions on the ground. Until we are satisfied that a further contribution to ensuring that the Iraqis can look after themselves cannot usefully be made by the Australian forces, they will not be reduced or withdrawn."
Howard's ringing endorsement of Bush and the Iraq mission is a rarity among foreign leaders, even those who have openly supported the war, reports The New York Times. Most are content simply to accept the US president's public gratitude without further praising the cause.
Declaring that "our commitment to Iraq remains," Mr. Howard used language almost identical to that of Mr. Bush when he said troop withdrawals would be "not based on any calendar, but based on conditions on the ground."
But just as Tony Blair, the former British prime minister, paid a political price for supporting the war, so too has Mr. Howard, and his appearance with Mr. Bush will likely do him little political good as he fights a tough re-election challenge from Kevin Rudd, the Labor Party candidate and a staunch opponent of the war.
On his official blog for The Australian, reporter Dennis Shanahan argues that General Petraeus's forthcoming report is of importance to Australians, too. In fact, Petraeus has already praised the Australians, saying they "get it" and that "they understand this extremely complex type of operation." Even Australian opponents of the war, namely the Labor Party, say they are concerned with building a functional democratic society in Iraq.
As Labor's foreign affairs spokesman Robert McClelland argued yesterday, "the Australian public is concerned about the ability to help build a democratic Iraq".
"More and more Australians know the Iraq war is a national security disaster and that we absolutely must change course. Less than one-fifth of those asked believe Australian forces are in Iraq to support the democratic Government," McClelland says.
Constructive engagement with local communities, training people with basic skills, building rapport with locals and muscular responses to military threats are what Australian defence forces do best, and it is what they are doing best in Iraq as well as in Afghanistan.
Australia's Courier Mail reports that Bush will meet with opponents of the war during his time in Sydney to discuss the role of the nation's some 1,500 troops stationed in the Middle East.
Opposition Leader Kevin Rudd, who is to meet with Mr Bush in Sydney tomorrow, said yesterday a future Labor government would conduct a staged withdrawal of Australian combat forces from Iraq.
Mr Rudd is expected to carry an olive branch into the meeting with an offer to swap combat troops in Iraq for more military trainers. "What I've said consistently since becoming leader is that we'll embrace the policy of a negotiated, staged withdrawal of our combat forces," he told ABC radio yesterday.
While the Australians may shift to more of a training role, both Bush and Petraeus have implied that they may consider reducing US troop levels in Iraq if the security situation continues to show signs of promise, reports the Los Angeles Times.
"If conditions still improve . . . the way they have been improving, we may be able to provide the same security with fewer troops," Bush said during the news conference in Sydney.
But he said he would wait until U.S. commander Gen. David H. Petraeus and Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker delivered their report to Congress next week before making a decision.
Despite the support from Australia's leader, many Australians have provided Bush with constant reminders that large segments of the population are opposed to the Iraq war effort, reports the New Zealand Press Association. In addition to several protests since the US president's arrival, a large protest is planned for Saturday.
Last night around 200 people attended a rally against the war and the presence of Australian troops in Iraq, but it was a peaceful affair in drizzly, cool conditions.
Security officials and protest organisers have been engaged in a war of words over the past week with neither backing down from the prospect of violent confrontation.