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Cheney Heads to Australia to Discuss Iraq
Howard will agree to deploy 'trainers' to the Iraq army
Rich Bowden (sremmah)     Print Article 
Published 2007-02-20 14:02 (KST)   
U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney heads to Australia on Thursday for talks with Prime Minister John Howard primarily concerned with Australia's continuing military role in Iraq. Specifically, Cheney is likely to ask Prime Minister Howard to contribute more Australian combat troops in support of the Bush administration's own decision to send an additional 21,000 soldiers to the country.

The U.S.'s recent decision to escalate its involvement in Iraq is opposed by the Democratic party-controlled Congress and has come despite U.S. domestic and international pressure to set a timetable for withdrawal.

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Though Howard has been an enthusiastic and original member of the "coalition of the willing" and has fully supported the Bush administration's strategy in Iraq, he is unlikely to support moves to deploy more Australian combat troops to Iraq in an election year.

Speaking to reporters earlier in the week, Howard denied he would be adding to the 1,500-strong Australian force in Iraq, calling the current commitment "entirely appropriate."

However in an announcement yesterday, Howard said he would instead agree to deploy 70 more Australian training advisers to assist the Iraqi army and suggested more combat troops may be sent to Afghanistan to join coalition forces in an offensive against the recently resurgent Taliban forces.

The decision would be more popular among voters as -- though polls consistently show Australia's presence in Iraq to be unpopular -- the commitment of Australian troops in Afghanistan is more widely accepted.

While Howard said he did not expect any request from Cheney for more troops, a spokesman for the vice president said Cheney and Howard would discuss "where we need to have more done and what contributions we and other countries can make to the effort in both countries [Iraq and Afghanistan]."

The Iraq war has been a thorn in the side of the Australian Government with polls showing a massive 62 percent of respondents disapproving of the way the Howard Government has handled the war. With elections due to be called at the end of the year, Howard knows any further commitment of troops to Iraq will be unpopular with the electorate and must take this into account when agreeing to his government's responsibilities under the U.S./Australia alliance.

Howard though remains a firm supporter of President George Bush and recently caused consternation by apparently referring to the U.S. Democratic party's contender Barack Obama as the preferred choice of terrorists in Iraq. Howard made the remarks on national television following Obama's unveiling of his plan to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq by March 31, 2008.

Cheney has also agreed to meet with Australian Opposition Leader Kevin Rudd on Friday following a request from the Rudd's office. In what promises to be a robust meeting, a senior official in Cheney's office said that the two would discuss "some of the issues that are of concern to him and [Rudd's] Labor party."

The talks between the two will most likely lack the warmth and friendliness of the Cheney/Howard discussions as Rudd has criticized the Bush administration's handling of the war and called for a withdrawal of Australian forces from Iraq.

The Labor Party, riding high in the opinion polls, has recently turned up the heat on Howard to explain his course of action in Iraq. Calling the Iraqi government "inept" and "extremely violent," Opposition Defense Spokesman Robert McClelland claimed Australian troops were being "held hostage to the action."

McClelland said the Iraqi government appeared incapable of deploying their 300,000 armed forces effectively and called for a phased withdrawal of coalition troops to "shock" the Iraqi government into action.

The comments, coming as they do just prior to Cheney's visit has sharpened the distinction between the Australian Government -- seen as too close to the U.S. administration -- and the opposition, which has been critical of the Bush administration's conduct of the war.

Cheney, one of the Iraq wars chief advocates, will arrive in Australia following similar discussions with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Despite the growing unpopularity of the war, he is expected to reaffirm with his allies Japan and Australia the Bush administration's commitment to maintaining its forces in Iraq.
©2007 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Rich Bowden

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