Australian Prime Minister John Howard has promised to stand by the United States in its war in Iraq despite mounting public opposition at home. Mr. Howard has insisted he will not bow to pressure to pull Australian troops out of the conflict, stressing that the U.S. plan to restore peace must be given time to work. The Prime Minister is hoping his tough stance on matters of national security and foreign policy will help him win an election later this year. From Sydney, Phil Mercer reports.
Australia has about 1,500 troops in and around Iraq while a smaller contingent is deployed in Afghanistan. Their role in the U.S.-led campaigns will be one of the key issues in Australia's general election due later this year.
Prime Minister John Howard has said success against insurgents in Iraq will ultimately make Australia safer by reducing the threat of global extremism.
The opposition Labor party will withdraw troops from Iraq if it forms the next government.
Mr. Howard, who recently returned from a secret visit to Iraq, told parliament in Canberra that Australian forces were playing an important part in helping the Iraqis provide their own security.
"Colonel Rawlins, the commander of the Australian forces in Tallil has told me of the great strides they have made, the confidence of the locals that had been won, the feeling that they were doing an effective job in training the local Iraqis, Mr. Speaker," said Mr. Howard. "And overall I came away from that country feeling more optimistic than I had felt before I went there.
Mr. Howard has conceded that his Iraq policy is unpopular with voters but has urged Australians to be patient and to consider the consequences of a hasty withdrawal from the strife-torn country.
A new opinion poll has shown his conservative government is trailing the opposition Labor Party by 39 percent to 61 percent.
Labor's deputy leader Julia Gillard says her party would pull Australian troops out of Iraq but not Afghanistan.
"The situation in Afghanistan is one that requires a military solution and we have supported that deployment throughout. That is where Osama bin Laden reined his terror from, it's where every terrorist who has been caught in Australia was trained. It is terror central and a military solution is required there," she said. "The situation in Iraq is different. Iraq is a country that effectively has a civil war and that requires a political solution.
Labor's position - a planned withdrawal from Iraq but not Afghanistan - has drawn an exasperated response from Prime Minister Howard.
"There remains in my mind a wonderment of the disconnect in the minds of those who attack the government on this issue between the fate of terrorism in Afghanistan and the fate of terrorism in Iraq," he said. "It is common cause on both sides of the house that we should defeat terrorism in Afghanistan, but apparently while it's good to defeat terrorism in Afghanistan, it's not good to defeat it in Iraq, Mr. Speaker. I find that a puzzling disconnect."
A victory for the opposition later this year and a withdrawal from Iraq would fundamentally change Australia's foreign policy.
Labor's foreign affairs spokesman Robert McClelland says re-shaping Australia's commitments overseas will not mean that a Labor government would be abandoning the United States.
"It's simply a matter of sitting down with the United States to say, 'Look, collectively we're in this war against terrorism around the globe. Let's look at where we can most strategically and effectively use our combined resources," he said. "We can do it much more effectively if we focus our combat troops in the one location. That's why we want to deploy, or re-deploy our troops and our resources to Afghanistan."
Analysts, like politicians, disagree on Iraq and Afghanistan.
Rod Lyon from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute believes Mr. Howard is right when he says that both campaigns are part of the same effort against terrorism.
"What Howard is saying when he says it's silly to fight them in Afghanistan but not elsewhere, what he's really saying is that the war on terror is going to have many fronts over many years and Iraq is actually one of those fronts," said Lyon.
But another analyst, Anthony Bubalo from the Lowy Institute, a think-tank in Sydney, disagrees.
"The real question for me is, if this is the case, if Iraq really is that central to the war on terror then why are Australian troops sitting, pretty much in their base in Tallil, outside the main fight in Iraq - and that main fight is in Baghdad - or indeed are not participating in the efforts in the Western Desert for example where some of the foreign Jihadist elements are based," said Bubalo.
Towards the end of this year Australian voters will have their chance to decide at a general election. Opinion in central Sydney on the emotive issue of Iraq is mixed.
"I do agree with what we're doing. It is a good cause," said one woman. "I think the end result will be good."
"I don't necessarily like it but I think if you start a job you finish it," another man agreed.
"I don't think we should have gone in the first place," said a second Australian woman. "Now that we are there we can't leave it the way it is. We've got a job to do and we've got to finish it. We're not people that run away from the commitment that we've made."
"It's a foreign war in a foreign country," an second Australian man concurred. "We shouldn't be there at all."
Australian forces have suffered very few casualties in the Persian Gulf, limiting the impact of their presence there on public opinion in Australia.
Unlike his allies in Britain and the United States Mr. Howard is seeking to gain political advantage through his government's commitment to an unpopular war in Iraq.
John Howard has been in power for more than decade and wants voters to see him as a strong leader who is prepared to make unpopular decisions.