In the wake of negative opinion polls showing strong public disapproval of the war, the conservative Australian government has come under fire for its apparent willingness to maintain, and possibly even add to, its contingent of 1,350 military personnel currently stationed in Iraq and surrounding countries. Speaking on Australian ABC radio following the meeting, Mr Downer said he had raised the security issue with Dr Rice but had offered the Secretary of State guarantees of Australian support adding, “We would like to get out of Iraq as soon as we think it's responsible to do so, and we will. But it is not responsible to get out of Iraq and leave the country in the hands of terrorists and insurgents.”
Downer’s colleague Defence Minister Robert Hill agreed with the Foreign Minister saying he believed setting a timetable for withdrawal was ill-advised until Iraqi security forces were fully trained. “The Howard Government has repeatedly said it is unwise to set an arbitrary timetable for withdrawing troops from Iraq,” he stated to the Sydney Morning Herald.
“Reduction and withdrawal of troops must be based on the growing capacity of the Iraqi government and its security forces.”
Earlier Opposition Leader Kim Beazley had criticized the continued presence of Australian troops suggesting that coalition troops in Iraq had aggravated the violence with soldiers acting as a “magnet” for the insurgency.
Speaking on Australian radio station 2UE, Beazley said: “I think that you’ve got to the position now where the [coalition members] have to think through very carefully the consequences of still being [in Iraq].”
“While our troops are there, we are acting like a magnet to all the ne’er-do-wells in the Middle East, bringing them into Iraq to join in the insurgency. Now there’d be no point in them being there if we weren’t there.”
Also calling for troops to be withdrawn as soon as possible Senator Bob Brown, Leader of the Greens party, said it was wrong for Australia to be committing its troops to Iraq while other members of the coalition had begun reducing their presence in the country.
He was also critical of the Howard government’s scant attention to regional security declaring in an official Greens press release, “This is the Bush administration's war…our troops should be in Australia and our neighbourhood where our national interests are concentrated.”
However Downer dismissed rising calls for the withdrawal of Australian troops and restated his government’s support for the new Iraqi administration,
“If Australia, the United States, and Britain all just pulled out of Iraq now, we would leave the country to al-Zarqawi and the terrorists, and that would be a catastrophe for the Iraqi people, who have recently voted in millions for a new government.”
The continuation of the government’s hard line policy towards the Iraqi insurgency has come in the wake of shock opinion poll results that show two-thirds of Australians believe the war to be “not worthwhile.” Conducted by Newspoll and published in the Australian newspaper on December 30, the poll also showed support for the war down from 50 to 43 per cent amongst the government’s own supporters.
Coming at a time when there has been increasing pressure on the US-led coalition to put a timetable in place to end the coalition’s military presence in the country, the polls echo a genuine belief in coalition countries that the continued commitment of troops to the country following the fall of Saddam Hussein has had a destabilising effect on Iraqi and Middle Eastern security.
However the Howard government has ignored the sharp decline in voter support and persevered with its strategy of unquestioning support for US foreign policy. With its status as one of the original “coalition of the willing,” and an enthusiastic contributor of personnel during and after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the government - led by staunch US ally PM John Howard - has resisted pressure to set a agenda for an exit strategy saying to do so would hand the insurgents victory and risk civil war.