Australia considers sending more military trainers to Iraq

Australia is considering sending more military trainers to Iraq but does not plan to increase its combat forces there, Prime Minister John Howard said Monday.

Troop levels in Iraq and Afghanistan are likely to be a key topic when U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney visits Australia this week for talks with senior officials.

Australia has about 1,400 troops in Iraq and 500 in Afghanistan.

"I don't believe that there is a case for sending more combat troops. We are looking at sending more trainers because training Iraqis to look after themselves is surely a very desirable objective and the point of the whole exercise," Howard told Perth radio 6PR.

"We are talking here probably up to 50 or 70 people," Howard told reporters later.

Howard said the size of Australia's commitment to Afghanistan was under constant review, the AP says.

Howard, who sent 2,000 troops to support the U.S. and British military in the Iraq invasion, pledged during the last elections in 2004 not to substantially increase troop numbers in Iraq. Australia's commitment then was fewer than 1,000.

But he broke that promise months after winning his fourth three-year term as prime minister by sending 450 extra troops to protect Japanese military engineers.

Opposition Labor Party leader Kevin Rudd, who hopes to become prime minister in elections this year with a promise to withdraw Australian troops from Iraq, said he did not support sending more trainers.

"Our troops have been there for four years now and our policy is our combat forces should come home, and secondly, there should be no additional troops sent," Rudd told reporters.

Cheney is to arrive in Australia on Thursday and leave Sunday.

Howard also said he would push the vice president for an early trial for David Hicks, an Australian who has been held for more than five years without trial at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

"I will be pressing the vice president as strongly as the circumstances allow for the trial to take place without any further delay," Howard said Nine Network television. "It's taken too long."

Howard said he was frustrated that the alleged Taliban fighter had been at Guantanamo for so long without a trial.

A U.S. prosecutor said last week that Hicks is likely to be formally charged with terrorism offenses within two weeks and a military commission would be established to try him within four months after that.

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