Photos: Clashes in Sydney before Cheney's Australia trip

SYDNEY - Anti-Iraq war protesters clashed with police in Sydney yesterday ahead of a visit by US Vice President Dick Cheney, underlining divisions within one of Washington's firmest allies over the unpopular war.

Police detained about six people when up to 200 Stop the War Coalition protesters, demanding Australian Prime Minister John Howard pull troops out of Iraq, tried to march from Sydney Town Hall to the US consulate.

A heavy police presence, including officers mounted on horseback, ringed the protesters in an attempt to minimise disruption to peak-hour commuters, some of whom also squabbled with police.

Protesters held placards saying "Dick Go Home & Take John With You" and "Stop Cheney, Troops Out". Police later relented and shepherded protesters as they marched towards the consulate.

Howard has ruled out following Britain's example and cutting troop numbers in Iraq but his unwavering commitment has him walking through a political minefield towards an election later this year.

"Mr Howard is enduring a perfect storm on the alliance and Iraq at the moment, a series of unexpected events which are combining to make for difficult sailing," Michael Fullilove, global issues director at the Lowy Institute think tank, told Reuters on Thursday.

Police earlier began a security clampdown in Sydney ahead of Cheney's potentially stormy visit, warning commuters of major traffic jams due to city road closures.

Cheney was due to arrive late on Thursday.

He told several hundred soldiers at a stopover in Guam that the self-ruled US territory in the Pacific was important for "the peace and security of our world" because US forces could move quickly from it to protect friends and defend its interests.

Cheney's uneventful visit to Japan and the trip to Australia are to reassure Washington's allies that Bush's planned injection of 21,500 more troops into Iraq will help quell violence.

But British Prime Minister Tony Blair's announcement that he would soon start withdrawing his troops has added to the pressure on Washington's other allies. Denmark and Lithuania have said they would pull out their much smaller commitments.

"Out of Step," the Sydney Morning Herald said in a front-page headline about Australia's Iraq commitment.

Iraq is a major problem for Howard's conservative government ahead of elections in the second half of 2007, perhaps the toughest of his 11-year reign.

An opinion poll this week found 67 per cent of Australians either want Howard to set a date for withdrawing troops from Iraq or pull them out immediately.

Centre-left Labor opposition leader Kevin Rudd, who will meet Cheney on Friday, has an 8-point lead in opinion polls on the back of a promise to withdraw Australia's 520-strong battle group from southern Iraq if he wins power.

- REUTERS

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