SYDNEY, Australia – Prime Minister John Howard pledged forcefully today not to reduce the number of Australian troops serving in Iraq despite growing calls in his country to withdraw.
“Australian soldiers will remain in Iraq … not based on any calendar but based on conditions on the ground,” Howard said during a joint news conference with President Bush. “We believe that progress is being made in Iraq, and we do not believe this is any time to signal a scaling down of Australian forces.”
Howard, who has been prime minister since 1996, has seen his popularity erode in large part as a result of his support for Bush and the U.S. war in Iraq. But he insisted that although the role of Australian troops may evolve into more of a training mission, “their commitment, their level … will not change under a government that I lead.”
Australia has about 1,500 troops in Iraq, about 500 of them in combat roles. The United States has more than 160,000 troops in the country.
Bush arrived in Sydney late Tuesday and is scheduled to spend four days in Australia, meeting with officials and attending the annual Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit.
Bush considers Howard a friend as well as an ally, and he was scheduled to devote much of today to Howard, meeting with his Cabinet, lunching with Australian troops and visiting the local governor before ending the day with dinner at the prime minister’s residence.
Howard is facing a tough re-election challenge from Labor Party leader Kevin Rudd, who has promised Australians that he would negotiate a phased withdrawal of Australian troops from Iraq. Polls show him leading Howard by a significant margin ahead of the vote, which must be held by Jan. 19.
Bush is scheduled to meet with Rudd on Thursday, and the president said he hoped they would have “an honest exchange of views.” But Bush also hinted that he would prefer Howard remain in office: “I wouldn’t count the man out,” Bush said during the news conference. “He’s like me, he can run from behind.”
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