Fri, Mar 26, 2004 - Page 5 News List

Australian soldiers in Iraq become big election issue

REUTERS , CANBERRA

Bringing Australian soldiers back from Iraq by Christmas has become a major political issue as an election looms, and the opposition's popular new leader insisted yesterday that the troops had to come home.

Opposition Labor leader Mark Latham, who has taken the lead in opinion polls, has vowed to bring Australia's 850 troops home by Christmas if his center-left party wins power in an election expected by most analysts to be held in October or November.

But Prime Minister John Howard, a close US ally who sent 2,000 military personnel to Iraq, has accused Latham of sending the wrong signal to terror groups, Australia's allies and the Iraqi people and called on him to reconsider his commitment.

US Ambassador to Australia Tom Schieffer, who has previously been rebuked for interfering in domestic politics, jumped into the row on Thursday by warning of dangerous consequences if troops were withdrawn prematurely from Iraq.

But Latham, who once called US President George W. Bush "dangerous" and "incompetent" over his decision to go to war in Iraq, has refused to change his pledge or kow-tow to the US.

He said the handover to an Iraqi government when occupation formally ends on June 30 was the logical time to withdraw troops as this ended Australia's international responsibility to Iraq.

"Labor has a realistic proposal here and we are sticking to it," Latham told Australian television.

"Australians are worried about security in this country and we are going to be much safer as a nation if we have our troops here instead of on the other side of the world."

A Newspoll survey this week found 65 percent of Australians thought the country's role in Iraq had put it at greater risk of a terror attack.

Spain's new prime minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, swept to power this month after promising to withdraw Spanish troops from Iraq and in the aftermath of the Madrid train bombings which killed 190 people and blamed on Islamic militants.

Latham's row with the government over troops in Iraq has finally given Labor the chance to take the lead on national security, an area dominated by Howard for more than two years.

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