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Australian PM-Designate Says Combat Troops to Leave Iraq in Mid-2008


Australia's prime minister-designate has said the country's 550 combat troops will leave Iraq by the middle of next year. Kevin Rudd has described the previous government's decision to go to war in Iraq as the "single greatest error" of Australian foreign policy since the Vietnam War. From Sydney, Phil Mercer reports.

During the just-completed election campaign, Kevin Rudd promised a gradual withdrawal of Australian combat troops from Iraq. As Australia's prime minister-designate, he now says the soldiers will be on their way home by the middle of next year.

Mr. Rudd made the pledge in an Australian radio interview Friday, but said there had been no discussions yet with U.S. authorities. He says he plans to meet with the United States ambassador to Canberra to discuss the details of the troop withdrawal.

Most of Australia's 1,500 troops are based in the south of Iraq, focusing on security and the training of Iraqi forces. Only a third of them are engaged in combat.

Mr. Rudd's policy in the Persian Gulf is distinct from that of the man he defeated in Saturday's federal election. Outgoing Prime Minister John Howard was a strong supporter of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, and had promised to keep Australia's 1,500-strong military contingent in the country until its job was done.

Despite Mr. Rudd's differences with Washington over the invasion of Iraq, the new Labor government is expected to tread carefully, and avoid upsetting Australia's historically close ties with the United States.

A former Labor prime minister, Paul Keating, says he believes the alliance will be stronger if Washington and Canberra are candid with each other.

"What we've got to do is run a foreign policy which is sensible for us - not commit troops to the Middle East, not end up at a point where we're…poodles for the United States," he said. "I mean we'll always have the United States as friends - culturally, you know, in every other respect. But how much better friends would we have been to have said to George Bush, 'Look, friend, this is not the way, this is not the right thing to do?'"

Labor's plan would still see some Australian soldiers remaining in Iraq, including those providing security at its embassy in Baghdad.

Labor came to power in a landslide election victory on Saturday. Mr. Rudd, a former diplomat, has said that the decision of the Howard government to enter into the Iraq conflict was a disaster for Australia's foreign policy.

Opinion polls have consistently shown that the Iraq war has been unpopular with many Australians.

The Labor Party does, however, support the U.S.-led military campaign in Afghanistan, and has sent troops there as well. Labor officials have hinted that a withdrawal from Iraq could be followed by an increased Australian military presence in Afghanistan.