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Bush, Howard Reaffirm Iraq Commitment

U.S. President George Bush and Australian Prime Minister John Howard have reaffirmed their commitment to Iraq, at a meeting in Sydney. The American leader thanked Mr. Howard for his pledge to keep troops in Iraq - saying there is still plenty of work to do to help reconciliation efforts. VOA White House Correspondent Paula Wolfson is traveling with the president and has this report.

The two leaders stood side-by-side before reporters - a symbol of the unity they have shown on Iraq.

President Bush said he remains confident real progress is being made in quelling violence, after his stop Monday in Iraq's al-Anbar province - where local Sunni leaders are now allied against al-Qaida militants.

"The province I saw wasn't lost to the extremists," said Mr. Bush. "The place I went had changed dramatically - fundamentally, because the local people took a look at what al-Qaida stands for and said, 'We are not interested in death and destruction.… We don't want to be associated with people who murder the innocent to achieve their objectives.'"

Mr. Bush said the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq has assured him that the security situation is improving and it could lead to withdrawing some of the 30,000 extra U.S. troops sent to Iraq in recent months.

The comments come after the U.S. Government Accountability Office sent a report to the Senate Tuesday noting that the Iraqi government has failed to meet 11 of the 18 military, political, and economic goals set by the United States. It highlights failures in reducing sectarian violence.

White House officials are urging lawmakers to wait for next week's briefings by U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker and the top U.S. commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus.

Mr. Bush said he will wait for formal recommendations before making any decisions on troops levels, but stressed Iraq still requires intensive international efforts.

"There is plenty of work to be done. But reconciliation is taking place," he said. "And it is important, in my judgment, for the security of America and for the security of Australia, that we hang in there with the Iraqis."

Prime Minister Howard was equally firm in expressing his commitment. He said Australian troops deployed in Iraq - about 1,500 in all, with 550 in combat roles - will remain.

"The basis on which they stay there in cooperation with other members of coalition will not change under a government that I lead," he said. "We believe that progress is being made in Iraq, difficult as it is, and we do not believe this is the time to be sending any proposals for a scaling down of Australian forces."

But many Australians think their forces in Iraq should come home. Opposition leader Kevin Rudd has called for a complete withdrawal, and he is currently ahead in public opinion polls with parliamentary elections expected before the end of the year.

President Bush will meet with Rudd on Thursday. He says he will listen to what the head of Australia's Labor Party has to say.

"I am looking forward to listening to his opinion," Mr. Bush said. "I am also wise enough not to prejudge the election results in Australia."

To underscore his support for Australia's military presence in Iraq, the president went to a Sydney area naval base with the prime minister for lunch with Australian troops. President Bush and Prime Minister Howard also signed a new defense trade treaty designed to reduce barriers to the exchange of defense goods, services and information.

The two met as Sydney began to fill with foreign dignitaries arriving for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit later this week. Foreign and trade ministers have already opened their discussions, and business leaders are gathering as well for their own regional forum.