Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - Australia's opposition leader, who is riding a wave of popularity in opinion polls, says he will pull out the country's troops from Iraq if he defeats Prime Minister John Howard in elections due late this year.
Labor leader Mark Latham's comments drew a warning from the government Wednesday about the dangers of signaling to terrorists that their campaign is succeeding.
Foreign Minister Alexander Downer noted that Latham's position had shifted since the March 11 train bombings in Madrid. Following that attack, Spain's pro-U.S. government lost an election to a Socialist party whose leader announced he would withdraw Spanish troops from Iraq.
Downer said the Spanish Socialist decision "leads the terrorists to conclude that terrorist attacks achieve political results, and I don't think we should ever transmit a message to terrorist organizations that they can achieve political results."
Because of that concern, he said he hoped to persuade Latham to change his mind, and so ensure bipartisan support for Australia's role in Iraq.
Howard's government last year fended off significant domestic opposition and sent ships, aircraft and 2,000 troops in support of the U.S. and British forces fighting to overthrow Saddam Hussein.
Support for the policy grew as the military campaign continued.
Australia now has around 850 army, navy and air force personnel in Iraq, as part of the post-war rebuilding operation, and the government has not set a deadline on the deployment.
Previously, Labor policy had left open the possibility of Australian troops remaining in Iraq under a U.N. mandate, following the handover to an Iraqi administration at the end of June.
But Latham said Tuesday that, should a Labor government be in power by year's end, he would work to bring the troops home by Christmas. No date has yet been set for the election, but it's likely to be in September or October.
The policy shift comes at a time Latham and Labor are riding high in the polls.
In a Newspoll survey, 42 percent of respondents picked Latham as "preferred prime minister," just one point below Howard at 43 percent.
It's the highest result for Latham since he became Labor leader last December, and the highest for any Labor leader since Howard first became prime minister in 1996.
The poll also gave Labor a 46-41 point lead over Howard's conservative coalition.
Sixty-five percent of respondents in an accompanying poll said they believed their country's role in Iraq had increased the risk of terrorist attack against Australians.
Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden has threatened Australia by name in past years, in warnings that condemned Australia for its role in East Timor - Canberra led a peacekeeping mission that oversaw the territory's independence from Muslim Indonesia - and more recently, for its support for the war in Iraq.
Following the Madrid bombings, another message warning to Australia, along with Japan, Britain, Italy, Norway and the U.S. itself, came from a group purportedly linked to al-Qaeda, the Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades.
Downer raised another concern about Latham's plan to pull Australian troops out of Iraq, pointing out that some of the personnel there were tasked with protecting civilians working at Canberra's embassy in Baghdad.
"I don't want to see those Australians left unprotected in Baghdad and I'd like Mr. Latham to stop and think about that and perhaps consider the policy rather more carefully," he told journalists Wednesday.
"I don't think this is a time in history where we should just be jumping around in a populist way. I think this is a time in history when we should be focusing very much on persuading the public about what's in the national interest."
In the view of the veteran Australian political commentator, Paul Kelly, the legacy of recent events in Spain is that political parties, both those in power and those in opposition, "must decide whether to lead or merely to follow public opinion."
Writing in The Australian daily, Kelly noted that Britain's opposition Conservative Party leader had warned al-Qaeda not to think it could manipulate Britain in the way it had Spain.
"Whatever my disagreements with Tony Blair, any government that I lead will not flinch in its determination to win the war against terror where it has to be fought," Kelly quoted Conservative leader Michael Howard as saying.
Although Latham's Australian Labor Party is a longstanding ally of Britain's Labor, their stances on Iraq have been diametrically opposed, even as the Howard and Blair governments - one conservative and one center-left - have became natural allies over Iraq.
That tension between the two Labor parties has been demonstrated by the fact that Latham has strongly attacked President Bush over Iraq, but has avoided similarly criticizing Blair - an apparent contradiction frequently commented on by Australian government figures.
Peter Brookes, a senior fellow for national security affairs at the Heritage Foundation, said this week it was not surprising that al-Qaeda would try to create and exploit differences in the anti-terror coalition.
"Unfortunately, they created some on 3/11 [the day of the Madrid bombings]," he said.
"In the tough days ahead, the civilized world must buck up and face this challenge. Terrorism will be beaten - but side trips to appeasement are a sure way to delay our victory and increase the costs."
Send a Letter to the Editor about this article.