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Iraq to be focus of Blair's Australia trip

Written by: Staff
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CANBERRA, Mar 24 (Reuters) Iraq will be at centre stage in British Prime Minister Tony Blair's four-day visit to Australia starting tomorrow, with the father of an Australian Guantanamo Bay detainee hoping to seek his help to free his son.

Blair will make the second of three key speeches on terrorism, Iraq and Afghanistan in an address to Australia's parliament on Monday, after attending the closing ceremony for the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne on Sunday.

Anti-Iraq war protesters and anti-war politicians are planning a rally outside parliament for Blair's visit.

Australia was one of the first nations to commit troops to join U.S. and British forces in the invasion of Iraq.

Terry Hicks, whose son David has been detained in Guantanamo Bay for more than four years, said he had written to Blair to seek a meeting, and to ask the Blair government to grant his son British citizenship and seek his release.

''I have written a letter to ask whether we can get together and have a bit of a chin wag, but I doubt whether I will hear back,'' Terry Hicks told Reuters on Friday.

In December, David Hicks won a legal battle to be granted British citizenship, because his mother was born in the Britain, but the Blair government has launched an appeal to try to overturn the court ruling.

The United States has released nine British detainees from Guantanamo Bay after requests from Britain, but Australia has supported the U.S. military trials and has refused to seek David Hick's repatriation.

Terry Hicks will be the guest of Australian Greens Senator Kerry Nettle at Blair's state lunch, and for Blair's address to parliament, but says he has no plans to disrupt Blair's visit.

''The exercise is that I am there, and I will be very interested to hear what he has to say,'' he said.

Blair's speech to parliament is to be the second of his three speeches to focus on terrorism, Iraq and Afghanistan, and follows his March 21 speech in London in which he defended his interventionist approach to confront terrorism. The third speech will be delivered in the United States.

Despite historical links -- Australia was a former British colony before it became an independent country in 1901 -- there are few pressing bilateral issues, political expert John Hart from Australian National University told Reuters.

''There are basically no problems between Britain and Australia,'' Hart told Reuters, who said Blair was likely to use his address to Australian parliament to justify Britain's involvement in the war on Iraq.

''Given that Blair is reaching the end of his prime ministership, he has nothing to lose by speaking out quite firmly and trying to justify his place in history,'' he said.

REUTERS CH SP1317

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