Australia not follows Britain in reduction of troop numbers in Iraq

A decision by Britain to reduce its troop numbers in Iraq will not cause Australia to follow suit, Prime Minister John Howard said Wednesday.

Howard said he was aware of plans to be announced by British Prime Minister Tony Blair later Wednesday to pull 1,500 British troops out of the southern Iraqi city of Basra after handing security over to domestic forces.

"The reason I understand Mr. Blair will give is that conditions have stabilized in Basra so that there can be this decision taken," Howard told reporters in the western city of Perth.

"They will still have 5,000 and we will have 550," Howard said. "I don't think it follows from that that there should be a reduction in our 550."

Earlier this week, Howard announced he was sending another 70 military trainers to bolster Australia's troop contingent in two provinces in southern Iraq, where they are helping to train domestic security forces, the AP says.

Defense Minister Brendan Nelson also said the British decision would not cause Australia to set a timetable for the withdrawal of its forces from Iraq.

Nelson said the aim of all members of the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq is to train domestic forces so they could take over security in Iraq and reduce the necessity of foreign troops, and Britain's decision was based on that principle.

But Australia's contingent in Iraq is much smaller than Britain's and therefore there is less flexibility to reduce its size without compromising its security, Nelson said.

"Our timetable is confidently getting to that point ... where we can be confident that the Iraqis that we are training ... are able to confidently look after their own people and their own security," Nelson told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio.

"We are making progress ... (but) the conditions are not yet right to abandon the Iraqis in those circumstances," he said.

Howard has criticized the idea of setting a timetable for withdrawing foreign troops from Iraq, warning that doing so would allow terrorists operating in the country to claim victory.

Howard is under domestic political pressure to say when Australian troops will come home from Iraq, with elections due later this year. The war is deeply unpopular in Australia, and the Labor opposition has said it wants a staged withdrawal from the country.

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