Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith has made his first official trip to Washington to meet U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. During his visit, Smith made clear that the new Australian government will go ahead with its plan to withdraw its troops from Iraq within six months. From Sydney, Phil Mercer reports.
The withdrawal of combat troops from Iraq was a key election pledge by Australia's new Labor government.
The government plans to withdraw its 550 combat troops from the Persian Gulf by the middle of this year.
The decision reverses Australia's commitment to Iraq under former Prime Minister John Howard.
Foreign Minister Stephen Smith, who has spent the past few days in Washington, confirmed the details of the withdrawal in his first meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
Smith, the highest-ranking Australian official to visit Washington since last November's election, also met with U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
Stephen Smith says the decision to withdraw forces from Iraq will not damage Australia's alliance with the United States.
"We are sticking absolutely to the election commitment that we took to the Australian people," he said. "But I don't for one moment think that that in any way has any capacity to disturb either the good working relationship between the current administration and the new Australian government, nor to be anything of any significance in terms of a long-standing, enduring alliance which will last, in my view, for many, many years to come."
Smith says Australia is considering other ways to help rebuild Iraq.
Despite its position on Iraq, the Australian government does support the U.S.-led campaign to stabilize Afghanistan.
Canberra has hinted that it may boost its troop numbers there once the Iraq pullout is complete.
Australia has about 1,000 troops in Afghanistan, including 300 Special Forces commandos and a reconstruction task force.
Iraq has been a deeply unpopular war in Australia, where many believe it exposes the nation to greater danger of terror attack.
The Labor government has been at pains to point out that it considers the alliance with the U.S. to be indispensable.
Formal security and defense ties between the two countries go back to the early 1950s.