Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - New Zealand's Labor government said Friday it would withdraw the country's small contingent of 60 military engineers from Iraq in September.
Prime Minister Helen Clark made the announcement as she met with the visiting leader of the Labor Party in neighboring Australia, Mark Latham, who is at the center of political storm over his position on withdrawing Australian troops from Iraq.
Clark said that after pulling out its troops -- which are working with British forces in southeastern Iraq -- New Zealand may investigate other ways of helping Iraq to return to full sovereignty.
"With the commitments we have made to the international effort against terrorism and the reconstruction of Iraq, we have tended to take ... decisions which have a time period on them," she said. "But we may then come back and do the same thing again at another point when we have force regeneration."
Clark noted that New Zealand had contributed Special Air Services forces to the U.S.-led war against the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. The SAS troops were later withdrawn and then subsequently redeployed there again.
At an international donors' conference in Berlin this week, New Zealand said it was extending by another year its commitment to help Afghanistan's reconstruction.
"New Zealand is contributing more than 80 million New Zealand dollars [$53.3 million] in military and development support to Afghanistan, a significant sum for a small country of four million people, thousands of kilometers from Afghanistan," Foreign Minister Phil Goff said.
The New Zealand and Australian Labor parties are ideological partners, and both Clark and Latham have drawn fire from their opponents for statements critical of the Bush Administration.
While New Zealand Labor has been in power since 1999, the Australian party has been in federal opposition since 1996.
New Zealand under Clark opposed the Iraq war, while Australia under Prime Minister John Howard supported it both politically and militarily, offering the second largest contribution of armed forces to the U.S.-led effort, after Britain. Australia currently has 805 military personnel in Iraq.
Latham hopes to defeat Howard's conservative coalition in elections due late this year, and says if he does, he will end Australia's participation in the mission to rebuild Iraq by Christmas.
"If Labor had been in government in Australia we wouldn't have had troops in Iraq in the first place," he said in Auckland Friday.
After Latham announced the controversial policy late last month, government figures to urge him to withdraw it, warning that it was would be sending the wrong message in the aftermath of developments in Spain.
Spain's conservative government unexpectedly lost an election in March to a Socialist party which says it will withdraw Spanish troops from Iraq. The election took place three days after Spain suffered its worst-ever terror attack, prompting critics to say the incoming Socialists were giving terrorists reason to claim a major victory.
On Friday, Howard said in a radio interview that Latham's pledge went even further than that of the new Spanish government.
Spain's threat to withdraw was qualified by a statement that it may reconsider if there was a new U.N. resolution supporting the presence in Iraq of multinational peacekeepers.
In the Australian Labor Party's case, there was "no such qualification," Howard said.
"They are saying come what may, come hell or high water no matter what the Iraqi people say, no matter what the United Nations says, no matter what the Americans say, they will bring the troops home by Christmas."
Howard said that was "the wrong policy at a time when we should be sending a signal of strength and solidarity with our allies against terrorism."
In Berlin Thursday, Secretary of State Colin Powell was quoting as telling a German television network that he expected a new U.N. resolution before the July 1 deadline for handover of power to an interim Iraqi government.
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