Australia's Iraq war leader criticizes campaign

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CANBERRA, Australia (AP) - John Howard, the Australian prime minister who sent troops to support U.S. and British forces in the Iraq invasion a decade ago, has criticized U.S. handling of the bloody aftermath of dictator Saddam Hussein's overthrow.

In a speech in Sydney to mark the 10th anniversary of the fall of Baghdad on April 14, Howard said Tuesday that disbanding the Iraqi Army "was a mistake" and that efforts to remove Saddam's Baath Party from civil service "went too far."

The American interim administration that replaced Saddam, the Coalition Provisional Authority, "held sway for too long" and the U.S. cut troop levels too soon, Howard said.

"The post-invasion conflict, especially between Sunnis and Shiites which caused widespread bloodshed, did more damage, in my judgment, to the credibility of the coalition operation in Iraq than the failure to find stockpiles of WMDs," Howard said in a speech released by his office that was delivered to the Lowy Institute foreign policy think-tank. He referred to Iraq's weapons of mass destruction which the U.S.-led coalition invaded to destroy but never found.

A staunch ally of U.S. President George W. Bush, Howard angered many Australians by sending 2,000 troops to invade Iraq. The then opposition center-left Labor Party, which replaced Howard's conservative administration at elections in 2007, had argued against military intervention without a specific United Nation's mandate.

The anger lingers. Around 100 anti-war and anti-Howard protesters rallied outside the venue, their chants clearly heard by Howard's audience as he spoke.

Howard has no regrets about committing Australia to the war, but detailed mistakes made after Saddam's defeat three weeks after the invasion.

Disbanding the Iraqi Army converted many Iraqi veterans into "eager recruits for the insurgency," he said.

"As well as denying coalition forces a home-grown vehicle through which to help maintain order, disbanding the army put on the streets tens of thousands of unemployed and disgruntled Iraqis," Howard said.

Howard said it was too early to gauge the extent that democracy had taken root in Iraq or the impact of the country's transition from tyranny on the Middle East.

But he said Iraq was a probable influence on the Arab Spring, the popular revolutionary uprising that has forced regime changes in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen since 2010.

"Unlike most of its region, Iraq's polity has not been roiled by the Arab Spring," Howard said. "That must surely have something to do with the democratic framework which has been established there in recent years."

"To my mind ... it is implausible that the events we now know as the Arab Spring bear no relationship of any kind to the overthrow of Saddam's regime in 2003," he said.

(Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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