WASHINGTON - Australia's new foreign minister said today that his government's pledge to pull combat troops out of Iraq will not hurt Australia's relationship with the United States, which he called indispensable to Australian security.
Foreign Minister Stephen Smith, after meeting with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, said Australia will seek to "absolutely minimise any disruption" for the US as it withdraws 550 combat troops from Iraq by mid-2008.
Australia's departure, he told reporters, will not "be anything of any significance in terms of a long-standing, enduring alliance which will last, in my view, for many, many years to come".
"Administrations come and go, governments come and go, but the fundamental, underlying, indispensable nature of the Australia-US alliance continues," Smith said.
The new government of Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has distanced itself from the pro-US policies of former leader John Howard, who celebrated his close friendship with President George W Bush. Rudd's first official act as leader was to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, leaving the US as the only major industrial country to reject the global warming pact.
Both Rice and Smith, however, emphasised areas of cooperation after their meeting. Rice mentioned the countries' "deep and long-standing ties" and US-Australian work on Asian security. She agreed to visit Australia this year.
In a sign Washington values keeping close ties with Australia, Smith was scheduled to attend Bush's State of the Union address today, a major, annual speech before Congress attended by the most powerful figures in Washington.
Smith is the highest-level official from Rudd's administration to visit Washington. He was to meet with Defence Secretary Robert Gates and US lawmakers. Australia's trade minister is also visiting Washington this week, and Rudd has said he wants to make his own visit this year.
Rudd's November election victory ended Howard's more than 11-year rule. While Australia's front-line troops will be withdrawn from Iraq, hundreds of others will stay in supporting roles. Rudd says he will not shrink Australia's 1,000-troop deployment to Afghanistan.
Smith said that Australia is particularly concerned about Afghanistan's security and sees a need for "significant international-community interest" in the country.
On climate change, Rudd has said he hopes Washington would follow his lead and sign the Kyoto pact. Bush has said the accord would harm the US economy.
Robert Hathaway, director of the Woodrow Wilson Centre's Asia program, said that Rudd's change in tone is, from the US perspective, a "sign that even America's friends are having growing reservations about this administration and, most particularly, about the war in Iraq".
But Hathaway said he expects to see a "continuity between the Howard and the Rudd governments in terms of their overall relationship with the United States."
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