CANBERRA (Reuters) – Iraq urged Washington and incoming British Prime Minister Gordon Brown on Monday to stand firm against domestic political pressures and maintain troop numbers in Iraq despite ongoing militia and insurgent violence.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said progress was being made in Iraq since the latest security crackdown began in mid-February, but it was important there were no signs of weakness with coalition forces, including those from Australia.
He said Brown, who will take over from Tony Blair as prime minister in late June, had been a supporter of the military mission in Iraq and the Iraqi minister did not expect any significant changes under his leadership.
“We hope there wouldn’t be any changes, or any dramatic changes. We understand the realities of British politics,” Zebari told reporters at a joint news conference with Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer in Canberra.
“The forthcoming Prime Minister Brown has also been supportive of Iraqi democracy, of the mission, and I believe it’s very important there shouldn’t be weaknesses within the coalition because these are crucial times.”
His comments came after the latest violence in Iraq killed six U.S. soldiers and an interpreter. More than 3,400 U.S. soldiers have been killed since the U.S.-led invasion to topple Saddam Hussein in 2003, including more than 70 so far in May.
Almost 150 British soldiers have also been killed since 2003.
Blair made his last visit to Iraq as prime minister on Saturday and said he had no regrets about his support for the invasion, despite huge opposition in Britain to the war and to his backing for U.S. President George W. Bush.
In the United States, Bush is also under growing pressure from the Democrat-controlled Congress to spell out a timetable to start withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq.
Australia has about 1,500 troops in and around Iraq and the troop deployment will be a major issue at elections later in the year. The opposition centre-left Labor Party promises to withdraw frontline forces if it wins power.
Zebari, in Australia for talks with Downer and Prime Minister John Howard, said his country was making “steady and important progress” towards looking after its own security, but it needed strong political support.
“We all see the pressures building up in Washington, in London, in Europe, here,” Zebari said. “But I think this is not the time to cut and run. This is the time to stand with the people whom you helped liberate and to assist.”
Zebari’s visit coincides with a likely Australian decision on the future of its wheat export system after an inquiry found monopoly exporter AWB had paid $222 million in bribes to the former regime of Saddam Hussein to secure sales.
Zebari said he had discussed Australian wheat exports at length with Trade Minister Warren Truss, and said Canberra would be treated fairly over future wheat deals. “There will be a fair access. Both the U.S. and you are our partners, our allies. Definitely our people will look at the merits of these contracts,” Zebari said.
In February 2006 the Iraqi government suspended wheat imports from AWB while an Australian government-appointed inquiry looked into the kickbacks scandal.
The Iraqi Grain Board said the suspension was to be for the inquiry period. However, findings against AWB were handed down last November and buying has not resumed.
A year ago a specially-formed group, Wheat Australia, struck a single deal to supply Iraq with 350,000 tonnes of wheat, but since then Iraq has switched to buy U.S. and Canadian wheat.
The Australian government is due to decide on the future of its wheat export marketing arrangements on Tuesday.