It's no surprise that the US government is leaning heavily on the ALP federal leader Mark Latham to back down on his promise to withdraw Australian troops from Iraq "by Christmas". While the withdrawal of Australia's few hundred troops there would not have much military impact, it would be a significant political blow to Washington's claims that its occupation is backed by the "international community".
Both US President George Bush and US Secretary of State Colin Powell have publicly labelled Latham's withdrawal promise as "disastrous". Richard Armitage, Powell's deputy, warned Latham to "think what it would be like without" Australia's alliance with the US.
On June 13, US Democratic Party presidential candidate John Kerry joined the chorus when his foreign policy spokesperson, James Rubin, told the Sydney Morning Herald that the "prospect of success in Iraq will be improved by maintaining a substantial contribution from friends and allies, including Australia".
Rubin added: "When the Spanish government announced its intention to pull out, was critical of that. So he would be critical of any government's failure to recognise the stakes in Iraq, the need to succeed there, no matter how sympathetic he might be to concerns about how America got to this point."
The June 4 Washington Post reported that the "Bush administration has been trying to win commitments from allies to remain in Iraq" until at least the end of 2005. "Bush's remarks in a Rose Garden appearance with [Australian Prime Minister John] Howard", the Post added, "sought to prevent the further hemorrhaging of support after Spain's withdrawal" of its 1300 troops last month.
The Spanish withdrawal — ordered by the ALP's Spanish co-thinkers after they won the March 14 general election on a promise to pull troops out of Iraq — has been followed by announcements by other countries that they will make troop withdrawals before the end of the year.
Nicaragua has withdrawn its small contingent. Honduras and the Dominican Republic have announced that their small contingents will be out of Iraq by the end of this month. On June 15, Thailand announced that its contingent of 450 troops would be withdrawn from Iraq by September 20.
In the lead-up to the March Spanish election, the Bush administration also launched public attacks on Spain's opposition Socialist Party to abandon its troop withdrawal promise. Despite the March 11 terrorist bombings in Madrid, anti-war activists took to the streets and besieged the offices of the pro-war government of conservative prime minister Jose Maria Aznar.
The anti-war movement in Australia urgently needs to respond in a similar way to Washington's campaign to get Latham to back down on his troop withdrawal promise. A demonstration of people's power is needed to counter US pressure because, while Latham says he's sticking to his promise, there are worrying signals coming from the ALP shadow cabinet.
Shadow foreign affairs minister Kevin Rudd, recently in Washington to smooth ruffled feathers, has been at pains to stress Labor's continued support for the Australian-US military alliance and Labor's support for the US-led occupation of Iraq.
On June 10, Rudd "welcomed" the adoption of UN Security Council resolution 1546, a sequel to two other UN resolutions that have "legitimised" the illegal US-British-Australian invasion and occupation of Iraq. Resolution 1546 mandates the US-led occupation force to remain in Iraq until at least December 31, 2005.
Rudd has said that, if elected, Labor will keep in place the Australian Defence Force (ADF) personnel patrolling the Persian Gulf, and would probably also leave the 85 troops guarding the Australian mission in Baghdad.
According to the June 15 Brisbane Courier Mail, there are 175 Australian naval personnel on a guided-missile frigate in the Gulf, and 160 ADF personnel are involved in aerial reconnaissance operations using two P-3 Orion aircraft.
On June 13, Rudd said that it was always "clear cut" that Labor's position was that only "those forces which are purely dedicated to the Iraq-specific operation" would be withdrawn. The 340 ADF personnel engaged in the Persian Gulf operation, which Rudd claimed are part of the "broader war against terrorism", would therefore remain.
All this means that it's possible that about half of the current deployment of 846 ADF personnel in and around Iraq would be likely to stay if Labor wins government.
The ALP has had an ambiguous position on the Iraq war for some time. First, it opposed the war because there was no UN resolution mandating the US-led invasion. But after the illegal invasion and a May 2003 UN Security Council resolution recognising the US and Britain as the occupying powers in Iraq, Labor went silent.
At its January 2004 national conference, the ALP amended its platform to merely restate its opposition to the war, but said nothing about withdrawing ADF personnel from Iraq.
Latham's seemingly off-the-cuff statement that a Labor government would work to bring the Australian troops home by Christmas — made nine days after the ALP's Spanish co-thinkers had been swept into office on a troops-out policy — took many in his own party by surprise.
Latham's statement, which was widely interpreted as a pledge to remove all the ADF troops from Iraq, was welcomed by the anti-war movement and appears to have helped boost voter support for the ALP.
Iraq is shaping up to be a major election issue. The torture scandal, the strength of the Iraqi resistance, and the high number of occupation troops and their Iraqi collaborators who are being killed are having a big impact on global public opinion. The polls indicate that more than half the Australian electorate is opposed to an Australian military presence in Iraq.
In the June 10 local council elections in England and Wales, British Prime Minister Tony Blair's governing Labour Party was resoundingly punished by voters for its pro-occupation stand. The federal election in Australia is also shaping up as a referendum on the Iraq occupation. If the warmakers in Canberra win this "referendum", they will be emboldened to escalate their support for the US war in Iraq.
While it may take just a vote to get rid of Howard, it will take more than this to make sure that the ALP does not backslide on Iraq. June 30, the date of Washington's phoney hand-over of "Iraq to the Iraqis", will be a national day of anti-war protest action in Australia, and anti-war rallies have also been planned across the world.
It is the next major opportunity to make known to all the politicians that the troops must be brought home now, and that the Iraqi people may be allowed to get on with governing their own country. Howard must go the way of Aznar, but Latham has to be told — in unequivocal terms — that all the troops must come out of Iraq. We, the democratic opposition in the streets, must apply the counter-pressure to that of the US warmakers.
From Green Left Weekly, June 23, 2004.
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