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Asia Welcomes Return of Iraqi Sovereignty - 2004-06-28

Asian and Pacific nations have contributed significantly to the rebuilding of Iraq, despite the continuing bloodshed there, and, on Monday, the region hailed the return of sovereignty to the Iraqi people.

Australia and Thailand were among the first nations in Asia to welcome the handover of sovereignty to the interim Iraqi government.

Thai Foreign Ministry spokesman Sihasak Phuangketkeow says Monday's handover was a major step on Iraq's road to democracy. "We think this is an important step towards the holding of general elections in Iraq later on, and the return of full sovereignty of Iraq," he said.

Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer issued a statement calling the handover a "historic step" for the Iraqi people. Canberra vowed to continue helping in Iraq's reconstruction, especially in developing its security forces.

More than 2,000 soldiers from seven Asia-Pacific nations are in Iraq, helping rebuild the country, after the fall of Saddam Hussein last year.

Soldiers from Australia, Thailand, South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Singapore and Tonga are engaged in various activities, from training Iraqi policemen to humanitarian operations.

Last week, the region was shocked by the murder of a South Korean civilian worker in Iraq, but Seoul says it will push ahead with a planned deployment of 3,000 troops on top of the 670 already there, which will make it the third-largest foreign force in the country.

Asian leaders see their mission in Iraq as part of their commitment to the battle against terrorism.

Andrew Tan, a security expert from the Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies in Singapore, says that abandoning Iraq now would only lead to bigger problems in the future.

"The country would become a failed state, and failed states, as we've seen in Afghanistan and Somalia, are breeding grounds for terrorism," Mr. Tan said. "So, clearly, a measure of stability has to be brought in Iraq, and America's allies here in Asia are aware of the need to support that process of stability."

Australia's opposition party says it would pull all 850 Australian soldiers from Iraq, if it wins upcoming elections, but Prime Minister John Howard said, to do so would only embolden terrorists.

"This critical moment in Iraq's history, where a new democratic future is being challenged by immoral terrorism, it's the worst possible time to be sending the worst possible signal to the worst possible people," he said.

Some 160,000 foreign forces, mostly U.S. troops, will remain in Iraq, but will not be under the control of the Iraqi interim government.