Bush sees disaster if Australians leave Iraq

Posted in Iraq | 04-Jun-04 | Author: Brian Knowlton| Source: International Herald Tribune

Australian opposition leader Mark Latham.
WASHINGTON President George W. Bush said Thursday that it would be disastrous if Australia were to withdraw its 850 troops from Iraq, as the opposition leader Mark Latham has vowed to do if he prevails in federal elections expected late this year.

The president made the comment in a White House appearance with the Australian prime minister, John Howard.

Both men were about to leave for Europe, where they will attend a D-Day commemoration.

Between formal events, they will lobby European leaders for greater support for efforts to pacify and democratize Iraq.

The Bush administration was jolted in March when a Spanish Socialist government, elected days after a series of railroad bomb attacks in Madrid, withdrew the country’s 1,300 troops from Iraq.

When Bush was asked Thursday by an Australian journalist what it would mean if Latham, the new leader of the Labor Party, were elected and followed through on a vow to pull Australians out by Christmas, the president did not mince words.

‘‘It would be disastrous,’’ he replied. ‘‘It would be a disastrous decision for a leader of a great country like Australia to say that we’re pulling out. It would dispirit those that love freedom in Iraq and embolden the enemy who believe that they can shake our will.’’

There appeared to be an indirect warning, in Bush’s comments, that terrorists might try to influence the Australian elections in the way many believe they influenced the Spanish vote in March.

Terrorists, Bush said, ‘‘think that the Western world, the free world, is weak, that when times get tough, we will shirk our duty to those who long for freedom and we’ll leave.’’

Howard offered a firm commitment to keep Australian troops in Iraq as long as needed.

He said they would remain until the job assigned had been completed.

Now, Howard said, would be the worse time imaginable for allies to be showing any weakness.

Howard had said earlier that he was a little cautious about the U.S.-British draft resolution at the United Nations, calling for foreign troops to leave Iraq by January 2006.

‘‘It’s far better to set yourself goals which will make it possible to leave, rather than set yourself an exit date subject to achieving those goals, he said. ‘‘It’s putting the thing the wrong way around.

Fears of a terrorist assault on Australia have grown, particularly after the Madrid bombings.

In a recent survey that was published in The Sydney Morning Herald, 66 percent of Australians said they believed a terror attack was likely within two years.

Australians, as Bush noted, have fallen victim to terrorism.

Many of the 202 people killed in the bombing of a nightclub on the Indonesian island of Bali in October 2002 were Australian.

Howard, the conservative prime minister, has been a resolute ally of the U.S.-led efforts in Iraq, bu