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Latham softens Iraq troop policy

By CNN's Geoff Hiscock

Latham says the U.S. alliance remains a central pillar of Labor's foreign policy.
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George W. Bush

SYDNEY, Australia (CNN) -- Australia's opposition leader Mark Latham has softened his Iraq troop withdrawal policy and pledged military support if the United States comes under a "clear cut attack" again.

In a move designed to mend the Australian Labor Party's strained relations with the United States, Latham has also brought back former leader Kim Beazley as his defense spokesman.

Beazley is strongly pro-American and was defense minister in a previous Labor administration.

Latham, who will lead the ALP into a federal election campaign against incumbent Australian Prime Minister John Howard later this year, fell foul of Washington when he said in March he would bring Australia's troops in Iraq home by Christmas.

That drew strong criticism from U.S. President George W. Bush, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and most recently, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, who urged Latham to think what it would be like for Australia to be without an alliance with the United States.

Australia contributed around 2,000 troops, fighter jets and naval vessels to the initial invasion of Iraq last year, and around 850 soldiers remain there indefinitely.

Howard, who has led the Liberal coalition government since March 1996, is a strong supporter of Bush's war on terror and reaffirmed his commitment during a visit to Washington last month.

Latham opposes what he says is Howard's "policy of compliance" in supporting the U.S. in Iraq.

But in a fence-mending speech in Sydney Monday night, Latham repeated his stated position that maintaining the U.S. alliance was a "central pillar" of the ALP's foreign policy and that overwhelmingly, he regarded the international role of the United States as "a force for good."

While Latham said a Labor government would withdraw Australian troops in Iraq by the end of 2004 -- other than a contingent to protect Australian diplomats in Baghdad -- he would be prepared to contribute non-combatant personnel to a United Nations mission there and to help with customs and border work.

U.N role

Good friends Bush and Howard discussed the future of Iraq last month.

"The best contribution we can make is to help rebuild Iraq, its services and infrastructure," Latham said, pledging an extra Aust. $75 million ($53 million) to this work over the next two years.

Latham noted that Labor supported sending Australian military forces to the conflict in Afghanistan after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States, and would do so again.

"Should another attack produce an identifiable source, we would be prepared to support similar action," he said.

Latham, who became Labor leader in December, is neck and neck with Howard in the opinion polls. The latest Newspoll of voting intentions shows the two-party preferred vote in the first week of July was 51 percent for Labor and 49 percent for the Liberal coalition. Labor's support peaked at 55 in March.

Howard is expected to call a federal election towards the end of this year.

Howard's Defense Minister, Robert Hill, announced Tuesday the government had decided to boost its protection for Australian military trainers, diplomats and contractors in Iraq.

Senator Hill said an extra six Australian light armoured vehicles and about 30 more army personnel will go to Iraq later this week, increasing the security detachment to 120 personnel. The total Australian troop presence will rise to 880.

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