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Australia's Downer Rules Out Early Exit From Iraq

09 January 2006

Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said in Washington Monday his government has no plans for an early troop withdrawal from Iraq despite mounting domestic criticism.  Downer met with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who expressed U.S. gratitude for the Australian role in the Iraq coalition.

The Australian foreign minister reaffirmed his government's opposition to an early troop withdrawal from Iraq despite opinion polls showing slipping Austalian support for the deployment, and opposition charges that foreign troops are becoming a magnet for terrorist attacks.

Downer, who had just visited Mexico, added a stop in Washington after Secretary of State Rice postponed the trip she was to have made to Indonesia and Australia this week because of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's health crisis.

Australia sent 2,000 troops to take part in the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and still has more than 1,000 there, many of them protecting non-combat Japanese troops involved in reconstruction projects in the southern part of the country.

Downer spoke here following a statement Sunday by Australian opposition leader Kim Beazley, who said the foreign presence has become a magnet for Islamic insurgents, and that the United States, Australia and other allies are actually impeding chances for peace and should consider withdrawing now. 

Downer said he believes a premature withdrawal of coalition forces would be a catastrophe for the Iraqi people, who only three weeks ago went to the polls in huge numbers to show support for democracy.

"The fact is if want the terrorists to take over Iraq, then the quickest way to do that is to walk out of Iraq," he said.  "If we all just walked out of Iraq -- now he [Mr. Beazley] suggests that the United States, Britain and Australia should all just walk out of Iraq -- if we were all to just walk out of Iraq now, we would leave the country in the hands of the insurgents and terrorists. That is the last thing that the people of Iraq want us to do."

Downer, who visited Iraq shortly after the December 15 election, acknowledged that security conditions had eroded since then, but he said the allies would only be playing into the hands of the terrorists if they wilted in the face of an upsurge in violence.

The Australian foreign minister said he would visit the Netherlands later this month to discuss the possibility deploying about 400 more Australian troops to Afghanistan as part of a joint provincial reconstruction team with the Dutch.

Australia currently has some 200 special forces troops operating with the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan.

State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack said that in the course of the hour-long meeting with Downer, Secretary Rice expressed gratitude to the government of Prime Minister John Howard and the people of Australia for the sacrifices of their forces in Iraq.

He also said Rice expressed disappointment that she could not make her Asia-Pacific trip this week, and said U.S. and Australian officials are discussing early dates to reschedule her visit.

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