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Australia Pledges to Stay in Iraq Coalition

Australia Tuesday strongly reaffirmed its intention to continue its role in the U.S.-led military coalition in Iraq. Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, at a U.S.-Australian defense dialogue in Washington, said a precipitous withdrawal of international forces from Iraq would be disastrous. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.

Australia is one of the biggest contributors to the coalition with about 600 troops in Iraq and several hundred more in support roles in the region.

While the Canberra government has ruled out increasing its contribution, it is making clear it is standing by the Bush administration in Iraq and opposing a quick withdrawal.

At a media appearance capping a daylong meeting of U.S. and Australian foreign affairs and defense chiefs, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said Australia will not back out of its partnership with Washington at a time of difficulty in Iraq:

"We stick by our mates through thick and thin," he said. "And when times are difficult for them. I mean I think when times are difficult for you, that's when you look to your friends to see if they're really friends. And the one thing I don't think the Americans will ever find is that the Australians are weak, fair-weather friends."

Downer said the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group report released last week, which proposes the withdrawal of U.S. combat brigades from Iraq by early 2008, contains a number of recommendations of interest. But he stressed, as did the report's authors, the danger of a precipitous pullout:

"We believe that if the United States were to withdraw too quickly, and inappropriately, the consequences would not only be disastrous for the Iraqi people, it could lead to neighboring countries being drawn into military conflict over Iraq and in Iraq. And, of course, the consequences for the struggle against terrorism internationally would be utterly disastrous," he added.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who headed the U.S. side in the bilateral dialogue, confirmed that President Bush's review of Iraq policy will culminate with an announcement in early January rather than before Christmas as the White House previously indicated.

She said given the importance of the issues involved, the deliberate pace of the President's review is understandable:

"It shouldn't be surprising that he wants to take time to digest that, to discuss it with his senior advisers, and then to put forward a way forward," she said. And I'm quite certain that will be in a reasonable length of time. But it has to be a way forward that, first and foremost, the President feels he's consulted fully, that he has been given the very best advice, and that he has a way forward in which he has confidence."

On the Baker-Hamilton call for a renewed U.S. diplomatic effort to re-start Middle East peace efforts, Rice said the United States is already actively engaged in the region but will look for opportunities to be even more so.

Rice, who officials say will likely travel to the region early in the new year, said she sees "an opening" on the Israeli-Palestinian front and that there will be "quite active" U.S. diplomatic engagement.

The U.S. Australian dialogue was otherwise dominated by Asian security and defense issues.

Earlier Tuesday, Australian Defense Minister Brendan Nelson and Deputy U.S. Defense Secretary Gordon England signed an agreement under which Australia will be part of the U.S.-led coalition building the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

The U.S. aerospace giant Lockheed Martin is the main contractor for the plane but companies in several other countries are supplying key components. Australia becomes the first non-NATO country to be a partner in the project.