Staged pullout from Iraq a priority - Rudd
Source: The Sydney Morning Herald 03/20/2007
KEVIN RUDD has nominated the withdrawal of Australian troops from Iraq as a priority should Labor win this year's election.
"My first responsibility will be to then speak with the President of the United States and to speak with the Government of Iraq," the Opposition Leader said yesterday, the fourth anniversary of the US-led invasion.
"I would then commence a process of negotiations with the end point of a staged, negotiated withdrawal of that combat force."
The Prime Minister, John Howard, who will today make a speech arguing the need to stay in Iraq to give the violence-ravaged nation a chance of success, berated Mr Rudd in Parliament yesterday.
Mr Howard said it was inconsistent for Labor to support the war in Afghanistan but oppose the Iraqi war.
"While it's good to defeat terrorists in Afghanistan, it's not good to defeat terrorists in Iraq," Mr Howard goaded. "I find that a puzzling disconnect."
Mr Howard visited Iraq and Afghanistan last week.
With the Iraq war now in its fifth year, Mr Rudd listed statistics showing the secular and terrorist violence and civilian deaths had escalated dramatically over the past 12 months.
Mr Rudd challenged Mr Howard to admit the original strategy had "demonstrably failed".
At one stage, Mr Howard appeared to mishear a question from Labor's foreign affairs spokesman, Robert McClelland.
Mr McClelland asked if Mr Howard was aware of the US plan to withdraw should its current strategy of a surge in troops fail. He further asked whether Australia had a similar contingency plan.
Mr Howard replied: "Yes, it is normal for the contingency to be made."
Labor then asked Mr Howard to outline the strategy but he claimed to have been misrepresented, saying he was aware only of the US plan.
"Perhaps the Prime Minister has accidentally revealed that the Government's contingency plans for a withdrawal of our combat troops in Iraq is whatever the Bush Administration tells them," Mr McClelland said later.
"But such an important national security task should never be delegated to the administration of another country, however friendly."
Mr Howard agreed with Mr Rudd that overall violence in Iraq had worsened over the past 12 months. But he said he had left Iraq last week in a more optimistic frame of mind than when he arrived.
As well as visiting Australian troops, Mr Howard met the Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, and the new commander of US forces in the country, General David Petraeus.
Mr Howard said he was impressed by both men, especially Mr Maliki and his commitment to govern for all Iraqis and not just the Shiites.
He said the new surge strategy must be given a chance to work.
"I don't want to read too much into just a few weeks - and what I'm about to say is tinged with the utmost caution - but the early indications are promising," he said.
"There has been some decline in sectarian violence."