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Australia Expresses Frustration at Slow Pace Of Political Reform in Iraq

Australia has echoed American criticism of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, saying the pace of political reconciliation under his government is too slow. Phil Mercer reports from Sydney, where Iraq is expected to be a major issue of discussion among leaders at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum next month.

Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer says Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki should be doing more to bring about political unity in Iraq.

Canberra is frustrated that despite the signing of a pact among Shi'ite, Sunni and Kurdish leaders, a united Iraqi government supported by all main religious and ethnic factions does not appear to be any closer to reality.

Australia has about 1500 military personnel in and around Iraq, and has been a firm supporter of U.S. policy in that region since the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Foreign Minister Downer, who visited Baghdad in June, says the pace of political reform in Iraq has been far too sluggish.

"Of course, what concerns us is that the political process - the reconciliation process - at the political level is moving too slowly," he said, "and I raised this when I was in Iraq with Prime Minister Maliki, so the National Intelligence Estimate will put still more pressure on Prime Minister Maliki to continue to move forward with the reconciliation process. There's a lot that needs to be done there."

The National Intelligence Estimate he referred to was a recent report on Iraq by U.S. security agencies. It concluded that the capabilities of al-Qaida in Iraq were declining, but it also warned that the Maliki-led government could become "more precarious" over the next six to 12 months.

Despite these gloomy assessments of the political situation, Downer is more upbeat about Iraq's security. He says security has been helped by the deployment of 30 thousand extra U.S. troops, which were meant to give the Maliki government more time to make political progress.

Iraq is expected to dominate talks between Australian Prime Minister John Howard and President Bush during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum next month in Sydney.

Mr. Howard has expressed his frustration at Prime Minister Maliki's inability to make significant progress towards reconciliation among Iraq's main factions. In a newspaper interview, Mr. Howard described Mr. Maliki's performance as "disappointing."

In recent days Mr. Maliki has replied to criticism from senior U.S. politicians, including Senators Hillary Clinton and Carl Levin, who have called for his removal from office.

The embattled Iraqi leader said the American senators should "respect democracy."