Blair troop pull-out puts Howard on defensive


Twenty-four hours before British PM Tony Blair's February 21 announcement that his government would withdraw 1600 troops from Iraq in "coming months", Australian foreign minister Alexander Downer warned that any, even staged, withdrawal of US and allied foreign troops from Iraq would be a "victory for the al Qaeda terrorists".

In an interview with ABC TV's Lateline, Downer rejected the suggestion that the Howard government's commitment to keeping Australia's contingent of 550 troops in Iraq had "more to do with to do with what the Americans want than what the Iraqis want".

"No, no, it's a combination of, well, not just the Americans by the way, when you're talking of coalition allies in Iraq, the British as well. You might recall that the [Australian] combat units in the south in Dhi Qar province at Tallil in Iraq, that particular element went to Iraq at the invitation of course of the Iraqis but also the British ... And they work in with the British in the southern part of Iraq ...

"I don't think when you have alliances, when you have mates, when you have relationships, you want to do the dirty on people."

Earlier in the month, PM John Howard had gone on the offensive against Labor leader Kevin Rudd's claim that if his party won the federal election, it would, "in consultation" with Washington, pull all Australian combat troops out of Iraq within six months. Labor, however, would leave in place the 900 other Australian military personnel stationed in the Persian Gulf region to assist the US-led war effort in Iraq.

Howard tried to shift the focus of the Iraq debate, from Australia's troop contingent to whether Rudd supports the withdrawal of the 140,000 US troops from Iraq, by launching an attack on US Senator Barack Obama. Howard claimed Obama was the preferred candidate of the "terrorists" in next year's US presidential election because of his highly qualified proposal of a staged withdrawal of US combat units from Iraq by March 2008.

Blair's announcement, however, will likely undermine Howard's efforts. Within hours of media reports that Blair planned to inform the House of Commons that the British occupation force in Iraq would be cut from 7100 to 5500 troops, Howard government ministers were endorsing the decision as making "good sense", while rejecting any suggestion that Australia reduce its troop numbers in Iraq. Only two days earlier, Howard had announced that an extra 70 Australian troops would soon be sent to Iraq.

Seeking to put a positive spin on the British decision, Howard told journalists in Canberra on February 21 that the "security situation" in Iraq's southern city of Basra, where most British troops were concentrated, had "improved", adding: "The reason, I understand, Mr Blair will give is that conditions have stabilised in Basra ..."

This assessment, however, was contradicted the next day by defence minister Brendan Nelson. He told ABC radio's AM program: "The British have had their backs to the wall in Basra, which is like a mini-Baghdad ... so they'll redeploy most of their troops ... to the Basra airfield."

More than 130 British troops have been killed in Iraq since the March 2003 invasion. Blair has come under increasing pressure to withdraw British troops from Iraq — including from within the top brass of the British military. Last October, the head of the British Army, General Richard Dannatt, told the Daily Mail that Britain should withdraw its troops from Iraq "soon", as their continued presence helped foment violence.

He told the Mail: "We are in a Muslim country and Muslims' views of foreigners in their country are quite clear. As a foreigner you can be welcomed by being invited in a country, but we weren't invited, certainly by those in Iraq at the time."

At the same time as Blair made his troop reduction announcement, Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen announced that his country's 460 ground troops would be withdrawn from Iraq by August. Like the Australian "battle group" in Iraq, these Danish troops rely on the British occupation force for air, medical, artillery and other tactical support.

As Chris Uhlmann, AM's chief political correspondent, observed on February 22, the Howard government "finds itself with a very difficult argument this morning, but entirely of its own making. If you cast your mind back, the government framed this debate. It spent the last two weeks equating withdrawal with defeat ...

"Labor can make a very simple argument now, which is that if the British believe that there are conditions in which they can withdraw, why can't Australia consider that there are conditions in which it can withdraw?"