Bush defends troop buildup in Iraq, assured Australia won’t reduce forces

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SYDNEY, Australia (AP) – President Bush vigorously defended his troop buildup in Iraq on Wednesday, and got a boost when Australian Prime Minister John Howard said his country’s forces there won’t change for the foreseeable future.

“Our commitment to Iraq remains,” pledged Howard, one of Bush’s few remaining staunch war allies. “This is not the time for any proposals of a scaling down of Australian forces.” The two men spoke at a news conference.

Bush, his voice rising before he had even been asked a question about the war, spoke forcefully about the 30,000 additional American troops he sent to Iraq this year. His decision raised troop levels in Iraq to about 160,000.

“If I didn’t think we could succeed, I wouldn’t have our troops there,” he said.

Bush said it was important “that we hang in there with the Iraqis and help them.”

Australia participated in the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and still has about 1,600 troops in and around the country, 550 of them in combat roles. Yet the war remains unpopular here, and Howard faces an aggressive challenge in elections expected to be called within three months.

Bush made a surprise, 8-hour stop in Iraq on the way to Australia and filled Howard in on what he learned. Like he does with U.S. lawmakers and coalition partners around the world, he urged that decisions about troops be based on conditions on the ground rather than internal politics.

“The security situation is changing,” Bush said. “There’s more work to be done. But reconciliation is taking place.”

Bush returns to Washington this weekend ahead of an expected showdown with war opponents on Capitol Hill, kicked off next week with testimony from the top U.S. commander and diplomat in Iraq and their expected release of a progress report on the fighting.

Administration officials said Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, and Ambassador Ryan Crocker are recommending that Bush stand by his current war strategy. The officials also said the president is unlikely to order more than a symbolic cut in troops before the end of the year.

Bush’s troop increase will end by default in April or May, when one of the added brigades is slated to leave, unless Bush makes other changes to hold the number steady.

The president would not elaborate on his comments at the start of the trip _ in Iraq and then on the flight to Australia _ in which he hinted at troop withdrawals if security conditions keep improving. He reiterated his belief that troop-level decisions should be based on recommendations from military commanders.

“Whether or not that’s part of the policy I announce to the nation … why don’t we see what they say and then I’ll let you know,” Bush said, referring to Petraeus and Crocker.

In Iraq on Monday, Bush met with Iraqi government and Sunni tribal leaders, U.S. troops and their commanders at a military base in the heart of Anbar province, once rife with Sunni insurgents.

Bush was spending much of Wednesday with Howard ahead of a 21-nation Asia-Pacific summit later in the week. Bush was also to meet with Australian troops. The two leaders exchanged pleasantries before talks at the Commonwealth Parliament Offices within sight of Sydney Harbor. “You told me it was beautiful,” the president observed.

The president’s visit was expected to be accompanied by a series of protests by groups unhappy with the summit’s pro-business agenda, the Iraq war and the Howard government’s support for it.

An Australian reporter, beginning a question, mentioned how the extraordinary security for Bush’s visit had transformed Sydney. This prompted Bush to break in with an apology.

“Look I don’t want to come to a community to say what a pain it is to have the American president. Unfortunately, however, this is what authorities thought was necessary to protect people,” he said. “I apologize to the Australian people if I have caused this inconvenience.”

As host of the Pacific Rim forum, Howard has put a declaration on climate change and curbing global warming high on the agenda.

Bush was expected to push for a new climate change deal more to his liking. But he resisted the idea that he is unconcerned about global warming because of his opposition to the Kyoto Protocol regulating greenhouse gas emissions.

“That’s urban legend that is preposterous,” the president said.

Polls show Howard, in office for 11 years, trailing opposition leader Kevin Rudd, who has promised to pull combat troops out of Iraq if he wins. Howard has refused to set a deadline.

Howard is the last leader among the major original “coalition of the willing” partners still serving. Among those who paid a political price for standing with Bush on the war are former Prime Ministers Tony Blair of Britain, Silvio Berlusconi of Italy and Jose Maria Aznar of Spain.

Bush has voiced strong support for Howard, saying during their news conference that “I wouldn’t count the man out.” Howard has been equally effusive about Bush. Still, Bush meets Rudd on Thursday.

Before their news conference, Bush and Howard signed a defense cooperation treaty intended to reduce roadblocks hampering the exchange of defense goods and services. The treaty also will help defense-related industries in both countries share technology and assist U.S. and Australian forces to operate in concert.

At the APEC forum, Bush was hoping to advance his trade agenda, which includes restarting stalled global trade liberalization talks and seeking a longer-term Asia-Pacific free trade zone.

The trip also was intended to show he’s not neglecting the region, and he has a busy schedule of one-on-one meetings with Asia-Pacific leaders on the sidelines of the APEC forum. He’ll sit down with Chinese President Hu Jintao, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Japanese Prime Minister Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun and Indonesian President Bambang Yudhoyono.

But Bush was leaving before the final weekend session of the APEC meetings to be back in Washington for the Iraq debate and the sixth anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Asked about a report that China’s military had hacked into the Pentagon’s computers, Bush largely steered away from the question, saying “We understand that we’re vulnerable in some systems.” China has said the allegations are “groundless.”

Instead, Bush used the opportunity to offer a broad defense of the U.S-China relations ahead of his meeting with Hu, sessions that always feature a long list of difficulties and grievances.

“We’ve got great relations with China, from a diplomatic perspective,” Bush said. “We’re able to talk with them openly and candidly.”

Along with the defense agreement, Bush and Howard said they were committed to reaching a global trade agreement with other nations and shared the view that climate change must be addressed with the development of efficient energy technologies and the involvement of all major economies.