Kevin Rudd

Australia stands beside the US (except in Iraq)

PUBLISHED : Monday, 03 March, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 03 March, 2008, 12:00am


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Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has confirmed he will fulfil his election promise to withdraw all his nation's military personally from Iraq by the middle of the year.

Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston, the Australian chief of defence forces, said that his country had done 'its bit' in southern Iraq; it was time to pull out the 1,540 army, air force and navy personnel. Opinion polls have suggested that some 80 per cent of Australians support the withdrawal. Australia will, however, leave behind two maritime surveillance aircraft and a warship helping to patrol offshore oil facilities, as well as a small force of security and liaison troops.

The withdrawal announcement raised concerns of a potential crisis in the intimate US-Australian relationship. The two sides have fought together in every major military conflict since the first world war, and the US is Australia's third-largest trading partner, behind China and Japan.

But Canberra emphasised to Washington, during a meeting under the Australia-United States Ministerial Consultations on February 23, that the Iraq withdrawal policy does not amount to a radical rethink of relations. While lacking the personal connection to the September 11, 2001, atrocities of his predecessor - John Howard was in Washington on the day and experienced the event first hand - Mr Rudd and his new government are determined to maintain close ties with the US.

Indeed, Australian political and military support of US policy priorities elsewhere will continue - in Afghanistan, and in continued close co-operation in other aspects of the 'war on terror'.

'We very strongly believe it's in our national interest to be there [in Afghanistan] to counter terrorism,' Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith said on TV recently.

In fact, Australia remains so committed to the Afghan mission that its Foreign Ministry has been stressing publicly that an even larger international military deployment in the country is now essential. That sentiment is echoed by the US, Canada and France. The lack of Nato forces is, thus, likely to be the key Australian focus at the transatlantic security alliance's summit in Bucharest next month.

While the Australian withdrawal of its relatively limited troop contingent in Iraq will have only a limited effect on US ground operations, it has only added to Washington's troop deployment conundrum in the country.

Canberra's decision came as the US announced its troop presence in Iraq would remain 8,000 higher than before US President George W. Bush's 'surge', even after the planned pullout of some 20,000 men and women in the coming months.

The move by Mr Rudd has certainly not made things any easier for US military commanders, but it had been prepared for long in advance. America's allies have been departing from Iraq one by one, and a full Australian (and soon British) withdrawal - sooner rather than later - was inevitable. The US itself may not be too far behind.

Hagai Segal, a terrorism and Middle East specialist, lectures at New York University in London