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Australian Opposition Backs off Pledge to Remove Troops from Iraq - 2004-06-13

Australia's opposition Labor Party has backed away from its promise to withdraw the country's troops from Iraq by Christmas if it wins the next election. The party has been stung by criticism from President Bush and U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell. Australia's Labor opposition has been forced to clarify its Iraq policy after two weeks of sustained pressure from the White House. It all began earlier this month when President Bush said that an Australian pullout from Iraq would be "disastrous."

That rebuke prompted a senior Labor Party figure in Canberra to accuse the Bush administration of interfering in Australia's domestic affairs.

Labor's federal president, Carmen Lawrence, said Washington was trying to help Australian Prime Minister John Howard win another term in national elections expected to be held in October or November.

On Sunday, however, Labor's foreign affairs spokesman, Kevin Rudd, revealed significant qualifications on the pledge to withdraw forces from Iraq. Mr. Rudd said a Labor government would keep some troops in place beyond the Christmas deadline if they were needed to protect Australian diplomats.

There are 850 Australian military personnel currently serving in the Persian Gulf. Mr. Rudd said an Australian warship and surveillance aircraft would continue to patrol the Gulf under a Labor government.

At the same time, he denied that Labor had caved into to U.S. pressure.

"Our policy on this has been clear-cut from the beginning as well," he said. "Namely, it is those forces that are purely dedicated to the Iraq-specific operation which would be withdrawn."

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell has denied that the Bush Administration was trying to influence the Australian election.

Mr. Powell, however, repeated that it would be wrong of Australia to pull out of the coalition, especially now that the United Nations has backed a plan to return sovereignty to Iraqis at the end of this month.

"I think - as the president has said - it would be disastrous for Australia to say, 'Yeah, well, we see this international consensus, we see this new resolution, but we're going to head for the door.' I don't think that is the Australia that I have known and respected for so many decades," explained Mr. Powell.

When Prime Minister Howard committed Australian forces to the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, he was cementing his country's most important relationship. He has insisted that Australia's long-term security is dependent on close ties to Washington.

President Bush has called America's relationship with Australia "a critical alliance" in the war on terror.