Australia would damage its defense alliance with the United States if Canberra quits Iraq, Prime Minister John Howard warned critics Monday.
Howard said he had agreed to send 2,000 troops to back the U.S. and British militaries in the Iraq invasion due to the perceived threat of weapons of mass destruction _ but also to preserve Canberra's alliance with Washington, formalized in a 1951 security treaty.
"We ... took the decision in part because of our alliance with the United States," Howard told Southern Cross Broadcasting radio.
"I have to now deal with a decision," Howard said. "Do we rat on the Americans?"
"Do we say to the Americans: 'It's got all too hard and too difficult?' If anybody thinks that that wouldn't do damage to the alliance, they're kidding themselves."
Australia now has about 1,300 personnel in the Middle East, including 800 based in Iraq.
They are mostly guarding Australian personnel in Baghdad, helping train Iraqi forces and providing backup security in two relatively peaceful southern provinces.
Australia's opposition Labor Party, which opposed the Iraq war, has vowed to withdraw most Australian troops from that country if it wins elections this year.
Howard said that democracy has a "reasonable prospect" of taking root in Iraq, and that the U.S.-led coalition partners should remain in the country until then.
"Until we are reasonably satisfied that the Iraqis can look after themselves and deal with the security situation over the years ahead, I think the coalition should stay," Howard said.
The United States became Australia's closest ally in the Asia-Pacific region after Britain, Australia's former colonial master, surrendered Singapore to the Japanese in 1942.
"A lot of Australians think a close and strong alliance between Australia and the United States will be as important to our future security as it proved to be critically in the past," Howard said, referring to the U.S.-led defeat of Japan in World War II.