SYDNEY (Reuters) - Anti-Iraq war protesters briefly scuffled with police in Sydney on Thursday before the arrival of Vice President Dick Cheney, underlining divisions within one of Washington’s firmest allies over the unpopular war.
A police spokeswoman said seven people were arrested when police barred up to 200 Stop the War Coalition protesters from marching through Australia’s largest city, demanding Prime Minister John Howard pull troops out of Iraq.
A heavy police presence, including officers mounted on horseback, ringed the protesters in an attempt to minimize disruption to peak-hour commuters, some of whom also squabbled with police.
Protesters held placards saying “Dick Go Home & Take John With You” and “Coalition of the Killing”. Police later relented and shepherded protesters as they marched toward the U.S. consulate. Another protest is planned for Friday.
Cheney arrived amid tight security several hours later.
He is to meet Howard on Saturday. Howard has ruled out following Britain’s example and cutting troop numbers in Iraq but his unwavering commitment has him walking through a political minefield toward an election later this year.
“Mr Howard is enduring a perfect storm on the alliance and Iraq at the moment, a series of unexpected events which are combining to make for difficult sailing,” Michael Fullilove, global issues director at the Lowy Institute think tank, told Reuters.
Police earlier began a security clampdown in Sydney ahead of Cheney’s potentially stormy visit, warning commuters of major traffic jams due to city road closures and securing the area around Cheney’s harbourside hotel with concrete barricades.
Stopping over in Guam, he told several hundred soldiers that the self-ruled U.S. territory in the Pacific was important for “the peace and security of our world” because U.S. forces could move quickly from it to protect friends and defend its interests.
Cheney’s visit to Japan this week followed by the trip to Australia are meant to reassure Washington’s allies that Bush’s planned injection of 21,500 more troops into Iraq will help quell violence.
But British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s announcement that he would soon start withdrawing his troops has added to the pressure on Washington’s other allies. Denmark and Lithuania have said they would pull out their much smaller commitments.
“Out of Step,” the Sydney Morning Herald said in a front-page headline about Australia’s Iraq commitment.
Iraq is a major problem for Howard’s conservative government ahead of elections in the second half of 2007, perhaps the toughest of his 11-year tenure.
An opinion poll this week found 67 percent of Australians either want Howard to set a date for withdrawing troops from Iraq or pull them out immediately.
Centre-left Labor opposition leader Kevin Rudd, who is to meet Cheney on Friday, has an 8-point lead in opinion polls on the back of a promise to withdraw Australia’s 520-strong battle group from southern Iraq if he wins power.
“This war in Iraq represents the single greatest failure of Australian national security policy since Vietnam,” Rudd said on the eve of Cheney’s arrival.
Fullilove said Howard had tied his fortunes to Bush’s Iraq policy and would not change his commitment.
Canberra said on Thursday it was considering plans to double its troop deployment to Afghanistan to about 1,000 to head off an expected spring resurgence of al Qaeda and Taliban fighters.
Fullilove said increasing troop levels in Afghanistan was not contentious in Australia because the Afghan conflict had bipartisan support.
But he said the continued detention of Australian Guantanamo Bay inmate David Hicks could be one area where Howard wins a concession from Cheney. Hicks’ five-year detention has angered Australians who want him charged or brought home.
Howard has urged President Bush to push for a speedy trial for Hicks, who faces charges of providing support for terrorism and attempted murder.
Additional reporting by Caren Bohan in Guam
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