Australia's PM-Elect Says Troops Out of Iraq by Mid-2008


Australia's prime minister-elect says the country's 550 combat troops will leave Iraq by the middle of 2008.

Kevin Rudd, who beat incumbent John Howard in last weekend's election, had previously promised a gradual withdrawal of Australian troops.

He made the pledge in an Australian radio interview, but said there had been no discussions yet with the US. Under Mr Howard Australia was a keen supporter of the US-led invasion and made an early troop commitment.

Most of Australia's 1,500 troops are based in the south of Iraq, focusing on security and the training of Iraqi forces.

'Single greatest error'

Labor Party leader Kevin Rudd came to power in a landslide election victory on Saturday.

He has previously described the decision to go to war in Iraq as the "single greatest error" of Australian national security and foreign policy decision-making since the Vietnam war.

"The combat force in Iraq, we would have home by around about the middle of next year," Mr Rudd told a Melbourne radio station on Friday, adding that he would leave behind some Australian soldiers, including those providing security at Australia's embassy in Baghdad.

Until Mr Rudd's election victory, the US had counted Australia as one of its few allies in the war in Iraq - although due to the small number of Australian troops deployed, their significance was largely symbolic.

US President George W Bush has warned that withdrawing from Iraq would give encouragement to the militants there.

But since being voted into office, Mr Rudd has sought to allay Mr Bush's fears. In his victory speech last weekend, he sent his greetings to "our great friend and ally the United States."

He said on Friday that he would arrange to meet US Ambassador Robert McCallum to discuss the Iraq withdrawal as soon as possible. There are other differences between Mr Rudd and Mr Bush, notably their stance on the Kyoto Treaty on the environment.

Mr Howard, like Mr Bush, refused to sign, but Mr Rudd has already indicated his willingness to ratify the treaty.

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