CANBERRA - Australia's new Labor Government has formally told the United States it intends to bring its combat troops home from Iraq by the middle of the year.
Foreign Minister Stephen Smith told US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in Washington that the more than 500 troops and armour in the southern province of Dhi Qar would fly back to Australia when the present rotation ended.
Smith's confirmation of longstanding Labor policy - a direct u-turn on former conservative Prime Minister John Howard's open-ended commitment to Iraq - came as the Government also indicated a re-think of the nation's defence needs.
This could include the cancellation of a number of programmes launched by Howard, including the hasty decision to spend A$6 billion ($6.8 billion) on 26 American Super Hornet strike jets to plug the gap between the early retirement of the Air Force's aging F111 bombers and the planned arrival of new US-made joint strike fighters.
But Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon yesterday pledged to protect Australia's A$22 billion defence budget from severe cutbacks in government spending in the May Budget, and to increase real spending by an annual 3 per cent until 2016.
Fitzgibbon also foreshadowed a new recruitment drive to man Australia's expanding military, with a special emphasis on women, who comprise 50 per cent of the population but only 13 per cent of the Defence Force.
"In the 21st century women are heading up some of the world's largest corporations," he told a naval conference in Sydney.
"Here in Australia, a woman now regularly acts as Prime Minister, yet Defence continues to send the subliminal message - 'come and join the Navy, Army or Air Force, but don't ever expect to lead your chosen service'."
The statements by Smith and Fitzgibbon underline a shift in Australian defence thinking, balancing the US alliance and foreign commitments against a more independent foreign policy and a force structured more closely to the nation's strategic needs.
Iraq is an unpopular war and one which is regarded by most Australians as exposing the nation to greater danger of terror attack.
But Labor has been at pains to ensure that Washington does not see withdrawal as an abandonment of the US or any lessening of the importance Canberra attaches to an "indispensable" alliance. Smith told Rice that Australia would consider other ways of helping Iraq in such areas as governance, infrastructure and other civilian aid projects - but that the troops would come home.
"That's being done in consultation, not just with the US, but also with the United Kingdom and it's being done in a way to absolutely minimise any disruption or difficulty," he said.
"I don't for one moment think that this in any way has any capacity to disturb either the good working relationship between the current Administration and the new Australian Government, nor to be anything of any significance in terms of a longstanding, enduring alliance which will last, in my view for many, many years to come."
Smith emphasised Canberra's support for operations in Afghanistan - where Australia has about 1000 troops, including a reconstruction task force and up to 300 SAS and commandos - despite concerns about the military situation and political turmoil in neighbouring Pakistan.
In Sydney, Fitzgibbon said one of the the Government's highest priorities was a new defence white paper to replace the present strategic blueprint, completed in 2000. "The world has changed so much since then," he said.
Australia's forces in Iraq and Afghanistan include:
* A combat force of 515, with armoured vehicles, in Iraq's Dhi Qar province.
* About 280 other troops, including 100 training the new Iraqi Army, 110 soldiers and armour protecting diplomats and officials in Baghdad, and 70 in its task force headquarters.
* In Afghanistan, a total force of about 1000, including 300 special forces, a reconstruction task force, and headquarters, liaison and air traffic control staff.
* Both operations are supported by RAAF Hercules transport and Orion patrol aircraft, and a Navy frigate patrolling the Gulf.