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Gates and Australians play down friction over Canberras decision to pull troops out of Iraq
Gates Australia WX1 5107689
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, right, and Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte, talk with reporters about their upcoming visit to Australia Thursday, Feb. 21, 2008 in flight from Hawaii to Australia. Secretary Gates is on a eight-day trip with stops in Australia, Indonesia, India and Turkey. - photo by Associated Press
    CANBERRA, Australia — Defense Secretary Robert Gates and the Australian defense minister are playing down the potential for friction between the two allies over the new Australian government’s pledge to withdraw combat troops from Iraq.
    Gates said he values the role the Australians have played in Iraq, but realizes that the size of the Australian deployment had put stress on its military.
    ‘‘We’re concerned about the stress on our own forces. The Australians are confronting that challenge themselves,’’ Gates said Friday, speaking to reporters en route to Canberra and ahead of scheduled talks Saturday with Australian officials.
    The U.S. has about 156,000 troops in Iraq. Australia, which under its previous government sent 2,000 troops to support U.S. and British forces in the Iraq invasion, plans to withdraw 550 combat soldiers in the middle of this year.
    Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd — a leading opponent of his country’s involvement in the Iraq war — was elected in November after promising to keep foreign policy independent of the United States.
    Defense Minister Joel Fitzgibbon said Friday, however, that the change of government has not shaken Americans’ confidence in a key ally.
    ‘‘I don’t think there’s a need to be doing any trust-building at the AUSMIN meeting tomorrow,’’ Fitzgibbon said, using the acronym for the Australia-United States Ministerial Consultations, which have been held for more than 20 years.
    ‘‘The relationship remains very, very strong,’’ he said. ‘‘The level of trust has never been higher and I look forward to working forward together with our American friends.’’
    This week Fitzgibbon announced a review of the previous government’s decision to sign a $5.5 billion contract to buy 24 U.S.-made F/A-18 Super Hornet fighter jets. While Fitzgibbon has said canceling the contract would put ‘‘some pressure’’ on the relationship, he did not expect Gates to raise the issue.
    Fitzgibbon said the conflict in Afghanistan, where Australia has deployed 1,000 troops, would be a focus of the discussions with the U.S.
    ‘‘Our commitment to Afghanistan is a long-standing one,’’ he said.
    Australia has about 1,000 troops in Afghanistan, with many working as trainers or in noncombat roles.
    The United States has 29,000 troops in Afghanistan, including 16,000 serving with the NATO-led coalition, and another 13,000 training the Afghan forces and hunting al-Qaida terrorists.
    The two countries have largely been on the same page on Afghanistan, where the U.S. carries a large share of the combat burden. Australian leaders have echoed Gates repeated calls for other NATO nations to meet their commitments and provide needed troops there.
    Gates said he’s not concerned that Rudd and the new government may look to reduce troops there.
    ‘‘I’ve had two meetings with their defense minister at this point, and I don’t have any sense of a change in direction in Afghanistan,’’ he said.
    U.S. defense officials also said they expect Australia — which is not a member of NATO — to press for a greater role in the decision-making regarding the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan.
    Gates is also expected to give the Australians an idea where the U.S. is heading in Iraq, and his assessment of progress there.
    Associated Press writer Rod McGuirk contributed to this report.

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