Bush Meets With Staunch Iraq Ally Ahead Of Summit

Tuesday, September 4th 2007, 7:15 am
By: News On 6

SYDNEY, Australia (AP) _ Fresh from an Iraq drop-in, President Bush brought conviction that his troop buildup strategy is working to one of his few remaining staunch war allies, Australian Prime Minister John Howard.

Bush was spending much of Wednesday with Howard, including meetings, lunch, a joint news conference and dinner, ahead of a 21-nation Asia-Pacific summit later in the week. Bush was also to meet with Australian troops.

His visit was expected to be accompanied by a series of protests by groups unhappy with the summit's pro-business agenda, the Iraq war and the Howard government's support for it. But demonstrations were light on Tuesday _ before Bush's nighttime arrival in this heavily fortified city.

Australia participated in the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and still has about 1,600 troops in and around the country, 550 of them in combat roles. Yet the war remains unpopular here, and Howard faces an aggressive challenge in elections expected to be called within three months.

Polls show Howard _ in office for 11 years _ trailing opposition leader Kevin Rudd, who has promised to pull combat troops out of Iraq if he wins. Howard has refused to set a deadline.

Bush, who meets with Rudd on Thursday, has urged coalition partners to make decisions based on conditions on the ground rather than on internal politics. He has voiced strong support for Howard, calling him ``a man of steel.'' Howard has been equally effusive about Bush.

Howard is the last leader among the major original ``coalition of the willing'' partners still serving. Among those who paid a political price for standing with Bush on the war are former Prime Ministers Tony Blair of Britain, Silvio Berlusconi of Italy and Jose Maria Aznar of Spain.

En route to Australia, Bush made an unannounced stop in Iraq, meeting Monday with Iraqi government and Sunni tribal leaders, U.S. troops and their commanders at a military base in the heart of Anbar province, 120 miles west of Baghdad and once rife with Sunni insurgents. He was joined by his war cabinet.

Bush emphasized his belief that his current strategy _ which increased U.S. troop levels this year by about 30,000 to a total of 160,000 _ was working and he raised the possibility of U.S. troop cuts if violence continues to ease. He reiterated his belief that troop-level decisions must be based on conditions on the ground and recommendations from military commanders. He was expected to repeat this stance in his conversations with Howard.

After Bush's comments in Iraq and the withdrawal of British troops from Basra in southern Iraq, Howard told reporters he did not envision any reduction in Australian combat troops. ``We don't intend to pull our battle groups out of southern Iraq. We see it continuing to do very valuable work,'' he said.

Bush's visit to Iraq was an attempt to get out in front of an expected confrontation with Congress, and a progress report due next week from Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq; and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker.

``The main factor that will affect my decision on troop levels is, can we succeed? What does it take to succeed?'' Bush told reporters aboard Air Force One between Iraq and Australia. ``Because failure would lead to harm to America, is what I believe. As a matter of fact, I'm certain of it.''

Bush arrived here early and was leaving before the final weekend session of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum to return to Washington in time for that report, and for the sixth anniversary of the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

Howard has put reaching a consensus declaration on climate change and curbing global warming high on the Pacific Rim forum's agenda.

Bush was expected to push for a new climate change deal more to his liking, and to push his trade agenda, which includes trying to restart stalled global trade liberalization talks and to push for a longer-term Asia-Pacific free trade zone.

Bush and Howard were also expected to discuss developments in China and the recent deal in which North Korea agreed to relinquish its nuclear programs, including one that has produced bomb material. In return, Washington agreed to open talks on normalizing relations with the North, enemies since the Korean War, and explore removing the terrorism designation.

But U.S. officials disputed a statement by North Korea's Foreign Ministry that Washington already had decided to end the terror designation and to drop related sanctions.

``No, they haven't been taken off the terrorism list,'' Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill told Japanese reporters here.

Bush's trip is intended to show he's not neglecting the region, and he has a busy schedule of one-on-one meetings with Asia-Pacific leaders on the sidelines of the APEC forum later in the week, including sessions with Chinese President Hu Jintao, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Japanese Prime Minister Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun and Indonesian President Bambang Yudhoyono.