Australian party woos US


Wed, Jul 14, 2004 - Page 6

Australia's opposition Labor Party has pledged greater engagement with Southeast Asia in the war on terror in a new defense strategy aimed at mending relations with the US.

The opposition has also made former opposition leader Kim Beazley its defense spokesman in a move calculated to repair the party's relationship with Washington, which has been damaged by Labor's pledge to withdraw troops from Iraq if it wins elections this year.

Nicknamed "Bomber" Beazley for his days as a strident defense minister from 1984 to 1990, he is known to be a personal friend of US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage.

Neil James, executive director of the Australian Defense Association, a think tank, said he thought that Beazley would bring a more thorough defense policy.

"It will be very comforting news for the Americans and for many Australians," James told ABC radio yesterday.

Labor Party leader Mark Lath-am on Monday detailed a national security policy that would look beyond the 53-year-old defense alliance in relation to the war on terror.

Ahead of national polls, Labor is keen to undermine Prime Minister John Howard's advantage of close relations with the US and a national security track record forged in his response to the Sept. 11, 2001, al-Qaeda attacks on Washington and New York.

"Australia must engage more effectively with Asia," Latham said in a speech addressed to the Institute of International Affairs in Sydney. "In the past, Labor governments were able to shape the pattern of regional arrangements ... the Howard government has moved in a different direction."

Latham said that while he maintained his pledge to withdraw troops from the Middle East, he would not recall all 850 Australian military personnel based in and around Iraq.

Latham said Labor would support Iraq by sending customs, health and protective staff to help with postwar reconstruction.

Latham also said a Labor government would offer 20 to 30 non-combat personnel to support the protection of the UN mission in Iraq.

Latham said Labor supported the continued deployment of Australian navy ships to protect Iraq's oil platforms in the Persian Gulf and the deployment of Australia's Orion aircraft.

He said those deployments predated the war on Iraq and were an important contribution to the war on terrorism.

But Howard accused Latham yesterday of backpedaling on Iraq.

"Mr. Latham has to admit that his original commitment to bring the troops home by Christmas was a terrible mistake," he told Sydney radio station 2GB.

The government announced yesterday that an additional 30 troops and six armored vehicles will be sent to Iraq this week to protect Australians working there.

But Defense Minister Robert Hill said the government had not broken its longstanding commitment not to increase troop levels in Iraq.

"We're under our ceiling [of 950 personnel] and we've always said that we will mix and match the force to meet the greatest need," he told reporters.