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SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australian Prime Minister John Howard is secretly planning to begin withdrawing Australian troops from Iraq by February 2008, Australian media reported on Sunday.
The Sunday Telegraph, quoting an unnamed senior military source, described Howard's withdrawal plan as "one of the most closely guarded secrets in top levels of the bureaucracy".
The Sunday Telegraph said the drawdown of troops would focus on soldiers based in southern Iraq on security duty with Iraqi soldiers.
Australia has about 1,500 soldiers, sailors and airmen in and around Iraq.
Howard, a close ally of U.S. President George W. Bush, has been a mainstay of support for the controversial United States military presence in Iraq.
As recently as last week Prime Minister Howard said there were no plans to withdraw Australian troops from Iraq, and has consistently said that Australian troops would remain in Iraq for as long as needed.
A spokesman for Howard on Sunday referred to Howard's statement last week and told Reuters that he did not want to give credence to the Sunday Telegraph report.
Howard said last week that his government was not committed to a timetable over Australian troops in Iraq but was committed to an outcome driven by circumstances and events.
His withdrawal plan had yet to be put to U.S. President Bush or to the Australian Cabinet, the Sunday Telegraph said.
U.S. Ambassador to Australia Robert McCallum told Channel 10's Meet the Press programme on Sunday that a plan by Opposition leader Kevin Rudd to withdraw Australian troops from Iraq, if he won power in elections to be held later this year, could create tensions between Australia and the United States.
"The United States is extraordinarily grateful to Australia for its commitments there (in Iraq)," he said.
"Whenever one agrees with an ally about any subject, it's better than if one disagrees and there's always a tension or a stress on a relationship," he said.
The tone of the relationship in relation to Iraq would depend on the details, he said.
McCallum praised the role of Australian troops in southern Iraq, even though they are not on combat duty.