Australian Prime Minister John Howard dismissed a news report yesterday that said he has a secret plan to begin withdrawing Australian troops from Iraq in February.
"The story from this morning is absurd," Howard told reporters. "The plan is so secret, I don't know anything about it. I'm denying that story, full stop."
The Sunday Telegraph cited unnamed sources as saying the Australian withdrawal was expected to begin at the same time as the US begins to draw down its combat troops in February.
The US has yet to announce any planned redeployment of its forces.
Australia has 1,000 troops in Iraq supported by 600 navy and air force personnel in the region.
Howard, who originally committed 2,000 troops to support US and British forces in the Iraq invasion on the understanding that Australians would not be part of the occupation force, has refused to give a timetable for Australia's withdrawal.
The opposition Labor Party opposed the war and pledged to bring most of the troops home if it wins elections due later this year.
Yesterday's report said Howard intends to catch Labor off guard by announcing his withdrawal plan during the election campaign.
"The government is quietly saying to defense, `We don't want to get caught in Iraq if it comes unstuck for the Americans,'" an unnamed official told the newspaper.
Labor's defense spokesman Joel Fitzgibbon predicted that Howard would announce a timetable for withdrawal to keep Iraq from becoming an election issue.
"I think there is little doubt that he's laying the groundwork for a backflip -- a significant backflip -- because he doesn't want this to be an issue in the lead up to the next election," Fitzgibbon told Sky News.
Meanwhile, US Ambassador to Australia Robert McCallum said Labor's plan to withdraw troops if it wins the election could create tension between the two allies.
"One, in all candor, has to say whenever one agrees with an ally about any subject it's better than if one disagrees and there's always a tension or a stress on a relationship," McCallum told Ten Network TV.
However, it was up to Australia to decide where to deploy its troops, McCallum said.
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