Sat, Jun 12, 2004 - Page 5 News List

Australian opposition could damage ties, US warns

PRESSURE US Secretary of State Colin Powell said it would be `political disaster' for the alliance if Labor leader Mark Latham withdrew Australian troops from Iraq

REUTERS , CANBERRA

US officials have stepped up pressure on Australia's opposition Labor party to drop its promise to withdraw Australian troops from Iraq if it came to power this year, warning this could damage bilateral ties.

US Secretary of State Colin Powell and Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage have joined President George W. Bush and US Trade Representative Bob Zoellick in condemning Labor leader Mark Latham's plans for pulling out troops from Iraq.

Armitage warned that Latham's vow to bring Australia's 850 soldiers home by Christmas if he won the election could put the two nations' 53-year-old alliance at risk as he could not pick and choose aspects of the relationship.

"I don't think you can pick like an a la carte menu," Armitage told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) in an interview aired on Thursday night.

"The world doesn't work that way now," he said.

Armitage said Australians should try to imagine what life would be like living without the US alliance and without the close intelligence sharing relationship which is seen as a vital factor in dealing with security threats.

But Latham appeared undeterred, telling local radio yesterday that he did not think the alliance was a rubber stamp.

The US is Australia's major military ally, with its 1951 ANZUS treaty the cornerstone of its defense strategy. The treaty, between Australia, New Zealand and the US, makes an attack on one nation an attack on the other signatories.

Conservative Prime Minister John Howard, a close friend of Bush, has tightened defense and security ties even further since the Sept. 11, 2001, US attacks.

Powell, in an interview to be aired on ABC television on Sunday, said it would be "political disaster" for the alliance if Latham withdrew Australian troops from Iraq, despite a UN resolution backing a continuing international security role. But Latham, who has put Labor neck-and-neck with the government in polls since becoming leader six months ago, refuses to bow to the mounting pressure and abandon his promise to bring troops home if he wins the ballot tipped for October.

Latham, who once described Bush as "dangerous and incompetent" over his Iraq policy, Australian voters would make up their own minds.

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