Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - Australia's opposition Labor leader has dropped in opinion polls, just days after saying he would pull Australian troops out of Iraq if he wins an election later this year.
The majority of respondents in the poll also said Australian military personnel in Iraq should stay there "until their job is done," a stance echoing that of Prime Minister John Howard, who last year contributed troops, planes and ships to the U.S.-led effort to oust Saddam Hussein.
The poll result came amid signs that the Labor Party may be divided over the statement by Mark Latham, who said a week ago that if he becomes prime minister by late 2004, he would withdraw Australian troops from Iraq by Christmas.
Last week, a Newspoll survey published in The Australian gave Latham a 42 percent rating as "preferred prime minister," just one point below Howard at 43 percent. It was the best showing for any Labor leader facing off against Howard since 1996.
But after a week of wrangling over the Iraq troop issue, another poll published Tuesday widened the margin between Howard and Latham to five points. (The Labor Party retained a 10-point lead over Howard's conservative coalition.)
The ACNielson survey, published in the Sydney Morning Herald, also tackled the Iraq question, asking voters whether Australia's troops "should be brought home immediately" or "stay until the job is done."
Sixty-one percent of respondents said the troops should remain, while 35 percent said they should return home. Australia has around 850 troops participating in the mission to rehabilitate Iraq.
Government ministers have argued that Latham's statements risk being interpreted by terrorists as another victory, following recent events in Spain.
Following the deadly March 11 train bombings in Madrid, Spain's pro-U.S. government lost an election to a Socialist party whose leader said he would withdraw that country's troops from Iraq.
On Tuesday, Howard brought a motion in parliament opposing arbitrary deadlines for the troops' withdrawal.
"If the world at the present time trembles and shows any kind of equivocation in the face of the threat posed by terrorism, I believe that the world - of which Australia is inextricably a part - will pay a very heavy price in the future," he said during a special debate.
Howard said Australia's reputation and international standing was at stake.
"If we choose to abandon our friends, if we choose to give the wrong signal to the terrorists, that will not only make the world a less safe place, but it will also damage the reputation of this country around the world."
In his comments, Latham accused the government of "committing itself to an indefinite deployment" in Iraq for purely political reasons.
He also suggested an amendment to Howard's motion, calling for Australia's focus in the war on terrorism to be in its own region.
Labor strongly opposed Australia's participation in the war, but once it was over, adopted a policy that the forces involved in post-war reconstruction should be brought home as soon as possible, once they had fulfilled their obligations.
A senior Labor figure, foreign affairs spokesman Kevin Rudd, last year appealed for Australia to provide trainers for the new Iraqi military and police forces.
Some backbench Labor lawmakers appear to be uncomfortable with Latham's new line.
One of them, Dick Adams, said that a Labor government could be flexible about pulling out the troops "if circumstances change."
He also suggested that Australian troops could possibly remain in Iraq as U.N. peacekeepers, but Latham shot down that proposal.
Foreign Minister Alexander Downer picked up on the evident discrepancies, calling Labor policy "chaos," although Latham denied there were internal divisions on the policy.
See earlier story:
Ambassador Warns Against Premature Troop Withdrawal from Iraq (March 25, 2004)
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