Sat, Sep 15, 2007 - Page 5 News List

Australia not planning to reduce troops in Iraq

AP , CANBERRA AND SEOUL

Australia will not reduce its troops numbers in Iraq in response to US plans to bring thousands of soldiers home ahead of schedule, Australian Prime Minister John Howard said yesterday.

"We intend to maintain our current troop level," Howard told radio network Southern Cross Broadcasting.

Australia has 1,600 troops in and around Iraq, and Howard has been a staunch ally of US President George W. Bush's policies in the Middle East country.

The opposition Labor Party, which looks likely to win elections expected within months, has pledged to withdraw Australia's 550 combat troops from Iraq.

Bush said in a televised speech on Thursday he would bring 5,700 US troops home from Iraq by Christmas, and others that comprised a so-called surge in force numbers would follow next year.

Bush indicated, however, a large US military presence would stay in Iraq until beyond November 2009.

Howard said that the number of US troops in Iraq before the surge -- about 130,000 -- was 100 times the troop deployment of Australia.

"If there was some reduction in American forces, it does not mean there should be a proportionate decrease in Australian forces," he said.

Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said it was "unlikely" the government would change its policy on Iraq in the next few months, and there would only be a need for fewer troops when security conditions in the country improve.

South Korea is considering extending its troop dispatch to Iraq for another year but may cut the number of soldiers in the war-torn country by a third, news reports said yesterday.

The Defense Ministry proposed the extension at a recent security ministers' meeting held at the presidential office, the Dong-a Ilbo newspaper reported, citing an unnamed government official.

The proposal is being weighed positively, it said.

Washington wants Seoul to extend the troop deployment.

US President George W. Bush essentially asked for it at a summit with South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun last week, saying the South Korean contingent in Iraq has a high reputation for its expertise, and he wants "continued cooperation" from Seoul, according to Roh's office.

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