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Iraq tops Howard's foreign agenda

From Grant Holloway, CNN Sydney

Good friends Bush, left, and Howard will discuss the future of Iraq.
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SYDNEY, Australia (CNN) -- Australian Prime Minister John Howard heads for high profile meetings with U.S. and UK leaders Tuesday, leaving behind a political storm over when and what he and his government knew about Iraqi prisoner abuse.

Howard, a steadfast supporter of the U.S.-led action in Iraq, will have talks with U.S. President George W. Bush later this week in Washington, with the future of Iraq a key topic.

Australia contributed around 2,000 troops, fighter jets and naval vessels to the initial invasion, and around 850 soldiers remain indefinitely in the troubled nation.

The fate of two Australian terror suspects being held by the U.S. military in Guantanamo Bay will also be discussed with Howard pressing the U.S. to speed up the trial process for both men.

While Howard will be hoping his trip will increase his public profile as an international mover and shaker, in Australia his standing has been damaged by embarrassing revelations over the issue of prisoner abuse at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

No Australian soldiers are implicated in the abuse, but Howard, his defense minister Robert Hill and senior military officers have been shown to have made incorrect statements about when the Australian military was informed about the allegations of mistreatment.

Speaking to media Tuesday, Howard laid the blame for the misleading information on the defense department saying that he regretted "very much that I was given wrong advice".

"I am unhappy. I don't enjoy being misinformed."

Howard had earlier said publicly that the department of defense had not received a report, written last October, detailing allegations of military abuse in Iraq.

In fact the report was given to the department by a junior officer on May 11.

The fuss over the prisoner abuse put a damper on what should have been a buoyant day for Howard, with the release of public opinion poll showing his conservative coalition government would have regained power if an election were held last weekend.

That is a turnaround for Howard, who has been trailing a resurgent opposition Labor Party in recent polls.

Election planned

The government is likely to call an election later this year, possibly as early as August and most likely some time before the November 6 U.S. presidential contest.

Also high on the agenda for Howard's trip are trade issues, with the prime minister scheduled to meet California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to discuss an Australian role in a possible natural gas contract with that energy-hungry state.

Howard will also lobby hard with U.S. politicians for an early ratification by Congress of a contentious free trade agreement negotiated earlier this year between the two nations.

Following his visit to Washington, Howard will head to Britain for a meeting with British Prime Minister Tony Blair where Iraq is again expected to dominate talks. Commonwealth issues concerning Zimbabwe and Pakistan will also be discussed.

He will then visit France for ceremonies to mark the 60th anniversary of the D-Day landing of World War II.

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