In Surprise Visit to Baghdad, Australian PM Confirms Troops Will Stay

July 7, 2008 - 8:15 PM

Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - Taking a page out of President Bush's book, Australian Prime Minister John Howard paid an unannounced visit to Iraq at the weekend, thanking Australian troops there and reaffirming his government's commitment to the coalition cause.

Five months after Bush spent part of Thanksgiving Day in Baghdad, Howard paid an unexpected visited on Anzac Day, the day Australians and New Zealanders commemorate their compatriots lost in combat since World War I.

Howard used the opportunity to reveal that Australian forces would remain in Iraq for at least another 12 months. He also did not rule out a small increase in the number of troops there, currently at around 850.

Howard's carefully-planned trip was his first to Iraq since his government committed military forces to the U.S.-led campaign to overthrow Saddam Hussein.

The visit came at a time members of the U.S.-led coalition have been specifically threatened and targeted by terrorists.

Last week, a spokesman for the radical Shi'ite cleric Sheikh Moqtada al-Sadr indicated in a radio interview that Australian soldiers and civilians in Iraq were considered legitimate targets for kidnapping.

Accompanied by a small media contingent, Howard's six-hour visit was not announced until he arrived in the capital, where he attended a traditional Anzac Day dawn service at the Baghdad International Airport.

He later met with top U.S. officials, including administrator Paul Bremer and military commander Gen. John Abizaid.

But a planned visit to an Australian frigate was reportedly called off as the vessel was redeployed following a suicide attack Saturday night on an Iraqi offshore oil terminal.

Australia's decision to participate in the war against Saddam - it provided the largest contribution after the U.S. and Britain - sparked vigorous debate at home, although opinion polls showed support for the move climbed steadily as the campaign progressed.

The main opposition Labor Party opposed the war, but once major hostilities were declared to be over, it appeared willing to accept a continuing role in securing and rebuilding Iraq.

At the end of last year, however, new leader Mark Latham took the helm. Latham now says that if Labor forms the next government after elections slated for late this year, he will bring Australia's troops home by Christmas.

Howard has strongly rebuked Latham for making statements which the prime minister warned could encourage terrorists.

He told reporters on his weekend flight that Australia's troops would not be pulled out soon, and announced that the federal budget would fund the commitment until at least the end of June next year.

"It doesn't mean we're going to leave on that date, it simply means we're making prudent provision for being in Iraq for a while yet," he said.

In Baghdad, Howard thanked the troops for their contribution.

"You are seeking to bring to the people of Iraq who have suffered so much for so long, the hope of liberty and the hope of freedom, and your example, your behavior, your values, belong to that great and long tradition that was forged on the beaches of Gallipoli in 1915," he was quoted as saying.

On April 25, 1915, Allied forces launched an assault on the Turkish peninsula of Gallipoli, an action aimed at removing Turkey from the war and thereby shortening the conflict with Germany.

During a battle that dragged on for 259 days, more than 8,000 Australian and some 2,400 New Zealand soldiers died. The combined antipodean troops became known as Anzacs (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps).

In keeping with a growing trend in recent years, thousands of Australians and New Zealanders traveled to Turkey for Sunday's Anzac Day ceremonies, despite warnings from their governments about terrorism risks.

Australian Defense Minister Robert Hill, who attended ceremonies in Gallipoli, told reporters it was the government's responsibility to advise nationals of the risk, but at the same time it was "a wonderful thing to see" the large numbers of visitors, especially many young people.

"It is important that the terrorists who aim to undermine our confidence, to undermine our way of life, are not successful," Hill said.

Sixty people were killed in bombings in Istanbul last November.

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