US Iraq War Taking Toll On Australia, UK, Allies

US President George Bush may soon lose his last major ally in the war in Iraq, with Australian Prime Minister John Howard calling a federal election despite his Liberal Party’s trailing the opposition badly in the polls, mainly as a result of the Iraq war.

The announcement of the Australian general election comes days after retired Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, who commanded coalition troops in Iraq during 2003 and 2004, called the war in Iraq “a nightmare with no end in sight”.

It also comes less than a week after UK Prime Minster Gordon Brown announced that he would reduce the number of British troops in Iraq from 5,500 to 2,500 by next spring and suggested that all British troops could be brought home by the end of 2008. That would neutralize much of the political damage done to Britain’s Labour Party by former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s decision to take the country to war in Iraq, in time for the next British election.

Mr Howard is seeking a fifth term as Australia’s prime minister, but is struggling against a stinging backlash from the Australian public, who have always been overwhelmingly opposed to the war in Iraq even before the US-led invasion.

Australia’s involvement in the war is tipped to be a major election issue.

Opposition leader Kevin Rudd of the Australian Labor Party has long pledged to withdraw Australian troops from combat roles in Iraq if he is elected. While he supports Australia’s alliance with the US, he maintains that “being a good ally doesn’t mean that you have to comply with everything the United States says.” He added that he would not “leave our ally immediately in the lurch” and would act only following “clear-cut consultations with the Americans”.

Australian voters have maintained an intense interest in the war, and the comments of Mr Sanchez have been widely reported in the national news media.

Speaking to military reporters in Arlington, Virginia on Friday, Mr Sanchez held the Bush administration, the State Department and Congress equally responsible for what he called a “dereliction of duty”.

He said US politicians had poorly planned the mission, had not given the military the resources and support required for success, and had ignored early warning signs of civil unrest which had helped the insurgency to take hold.

He added that such incompetence and indifference to a mission would be punishable by immediate dismissal and court martial in the military.

“After more than four years of fighting, America continues its desperate struggle in Iraq without any concerted effort to devise a strategy that will achieve victory in that war torn country or in the greater conflict against extremism,” said Mr Sanchez.

He singled out the “neglect and incompetence at the National Security Council level”, accusing it of a “catastrophic failure” which placed the US and its military in “an intractable situation” in Iraq.

“There is no question America is living a nightmare with no end in sight,” said Mr Sanchez.

The NSC issued a brief statement in response on Friday evening: “We appreciate his service to the country. As General (David) Petraeus and Ambassador (Ryan) Crocker said, there’s more work to be done but progress is being made in Iraq. And that’s what we’re focused on now.”

In Australia, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer agreed that the situation is improving in Iraq.

“The fact is that the situation is getting better, which I think is the important point here,” Mr Downer told the Nine Network. “I mean, I think with the greatest of respect, General Petraeus, the general in charge there, our military people in Iraq, our diplomats on the ground there, people like me who have actually been there in recent times, talked to people, looked at the situation, are likely to know a fair bit about this.”

He implied that Mr Sanchez was “just playing a political game … or trying to make some rhetorical point”, although he did not make clear what political advantage Mr Sanchez may have been seeking.

“I think in terms of the substance of the issue, the situation is getting a lot better there,” said Mr Downer, who believes that Australians share the government’s view that Australia is “moving in the right direction”.

According to the most recent Australian newspoll, Mr Howard’s coalition government is trailing the Australian Labor Party by 56-44 percent in the two-party preferred vote. Mr Rudd is Australia’s preferred prime minister, leading Mr Howard by 48-38 percent.

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