Howard: Iraq failure 'horrendous'
Bush hosted a dinner for Howard at the White House in Washington on May 16.
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(CNN) -- Australian Prime Minister John Howard says the consequences of allowing Iraq to fall into the hands of terrorists would be "horrendous" for Iraq's people and the entire Middle East.
Howard, a strong supporter of U.S. President George W. Bush in the war on terror, told CNN's Wolf Blitzer the "worst thing" that could happen in Iraq was a premature withdrawal of military forces.
He said the new unity government in Iraq led by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki brought hope, but it still faced a big challenge from the insurgency.
"There is an enormous amount of inter-ethnic rivalry and clearly we are all concerned," Howard said.
"But you shouldn't translate that concern into a premature withdrawal or a premature drawdown of troops. I think that would be a mistake."
Australia has about 900 troops in the Iraq theater, with about 500 in the southern part of Iraq providing security for a Japanese reconstruction effort, and training for Iraqi forces. Navy and air force units also support operations in Iraq.
Howard, Australia's leader for more than 10 years, has just completed a visit to the United States, where Bush honored him with a state banquet at the White House on May 16.
Howard said that while Australia's military contribution in Iraq was much smaller than that of the United States, its position was unchanged from 2003.
"We supported the original operation ... and we'll continue to play our part," he said, adding that "the reality now is that we must finish the job.
"If Iraq is left in a situation where it cannot secure itself and it falls into the hands of the insurgency or the terrorists, then the implications, not only for the Iraqi people but for the whole Middle East, are quite horrendous," Howard said.
Howard offered a similar assessment of the situation in Afghanistan, where thousands of coalition forces, including about 540 Australian troops by this July, are battling a resurgent Taliban insurgency.
Howard said Afghanistan remained a long and very difficult campaign, but the alternative was unthinkable.
"If the coalition were to retreat, were to pull out, the Taliban would take over again and that would be an enormous setback to the anti-terrorist cause," he told Blitzer.
Australia has suffered only a handful of casualties in its Iraq and Afghanistan deployments, with one soldier shot dead accidentally in Baghdad last month, and one special forces trooper killed in a mine blast in Afghanistan in 2002.
On Iran's nuclear program, Howard said it was better that the United Nations system should be allowed to work.
Iran has ignored a U.N. Security Council demand that it stop nuclear-enrichment activities or face possible sanctions.
"We should exhaust the United Nations process before we start examining alternative approaches," Howard said.
Asked if he believed Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was a stable man, Howard responded that Ahmadinejad's remarks about Israel were provocative and unacceptable, and indicative of a person who operated on the basis of "blind bigotry."
Ahmadinejad has called for the destruction of Israel and raised questions about whether the World War II Holocaust, in which 6 million Jews died, happened.
Howard said the world community should not overreact to Ahmadinejad.
"But equally you don't take a backwards step, and my very strong view in relation to Iran is that we should stick to the path we have chosen."
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