Australian PM pledges cooperation with US

DONNA CASSATA - Associated Press
Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard speaks during a news conference at United Nations headquarters Wednesday, March 9, 2011.  (AP Photo/Jason DeCrow)
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Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard speaks during a news conference at United Nations headquarters Wednesday, March 9, 2011.

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard on Wednesday endorsed the U.S. strategy in the ongoing war in Afghanistan and promised her country's cooperation on the increasingly critical Asia-Pacific region, trade and job promotion.

"You have a true friend down under," Gillard told a joint meeting of the House and Senate.

The Washington visit, which also included an Oval Office meeting with President Barack Obama, was Gillard's first since winning election last summer as Australia's first female prime minister.

Australia has 1,550 troops in Afghanistan, the largest force provided by any country outside NATO and the 10th largest overall. Gillard said the allied forces have the right strategy, necessary resources and a resolute commander in Gen. David Petraeus, and she was cautiously optimistic about the outcome in Afghanistan.

"We know transition will take some years yet," she said. "We must not transition out only to transition back in."

The United States plans to begin withdrawing some of its U.S. troops from Afghanistan this summer with the goal of turning over operations to Afghanistan by the end of 2014.

While Gillard received several standing ovations during her speech, attendance among members of the House and Senate was low for her appearance. To give the impression of a full House, congressional pages and staff filled many of the empty seats.

After the speech, Gillard traveled to New York for a meeting with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

Speaking to reporters afterward, she called her speech to Congress "an honor for Australia, to celebrate 60 years of our alliance" and said it was an emotional day and "a big occasion" for her country.

Gillard said she and Ban discussed prospects for transition in Afghanistan and U.N. efforts to promote development and good governance in the country, but their main focus was on the continuing violence and deteriorating situation in Libya.

Australia's Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd announced last week that the country supports establishing a no-fly zone over Libya but Gillard stressed that the decision is up to the U.N. Security Council. She said Australia welcomed the fact that council members are discussions a range of options, including a no-fly zone, and are undertaking contingency planning.

In her speech to Congress, Gillard pledged to work with the United States in dealing with the rising Asia-Pacific region and advancing trade and jobs. And in a direct appeal to lawmakers, she said she looked forward to Congress passing a farm bill "that advances free trade rather than distorting it ... and that through free trade, creates jobs."

She also joined the U.S. in condemning Iran's nuclear program and calling for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

Reflecting the close alliance, Gillard recounted the story of a group of Australians who spent two months training with New York firefighters in preparation for the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. They exchanged an Australian slouch hat and a fire helmet when the session ended.

On Sept. 11, 2001, one of the firefighters, Kevin Dowdell, was killed in the attack on the World Trade Center. An Australian firefighter, Rob Frey, traveled to the United States to give the helmet to Dowdell's son, James.

Gillard paused in her speech to recognize Dowdell and Frey, who were in the visitor's gallery. The two received a long ovation.

"Together in the hardest of times. Friends for the future," Gillard said.

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Associated Press writer Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.