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Asia & Pacific

Obama, Australian Prime Minister Pledge Cooperation

WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama and Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard pledged mutual cooperation Monday in the increasingly important Asia-Pacific region and the war in Afghanistan. They also pledged a united front against violence in the Mideast.

It was Gillard's first visit to Washington since winning election last summer as Australia's first female prime minister. The two leaders had met at overseas summits but this was the first time in the U.S.

"We have no stronger ally than Australia. And as we celebrate the 60th anniversary of our alliance I think it's especially appropriate to have Prime Minister Gillard here," Obama told reporters in brief remarks in the Oval Office after the two leaders met.

"Australia and the United States have a shared interest in expanding trade in the Pacific region, in promoting clean energy, in making sure that we don't have regulatory barriers that prevent our businesses from working across our borders," he said.

Obama had been scheduled to visit Australia last year, but the trip was twice canceled because of domestic priorities. In response to a question from an Australian reporter Obama said he hoped he'd be able to travel to Australia soon, but he didn't give a specific timetable.

The president also thanked the Australian people and military forces for what he called an "extraordinary commitment" to the war in Afghanistan, where Australia is the U.S.'s largest non-NATO partner.

Gillard said the U.S. and Australia were "great mates" and addressed the Afghan war effort. "It is hard, but it's something that I am very personally committed to, to seeing the mission done," she said.

From their meeting at the White House the two leaders made a quick trip to a suburban school, where they took questions from 11th grade history students about topics including the education system in Australia and the benefits of vegemite, an Australian food paste that Gillard lauded but Obama dismissed as disgusting.

Earlier, Gillard announced a $3 million donation from her government to a planned visitors center for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington. Australia sent some 60,000 military members to Vietnam as a U.S. ally in the war and more than 500 Australians lost their lives during the conflict.

The planned exhibit space, called The Education Center at the Wall, will be underground and display items that have been placed at the memorial.

Gillard said the planned visitor center would be a place for visitors to both learn about and remember the war.

"I believe we must make every effort to remember," Gillard said before visiting the memorial and running her hand along the wall's inscribed names.

Australia has its own Vietnam memorial in Canberra, the country's capital. But Australian veterans also visit the American memorial, said Jan Scruggs, the president of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, which is building the visitor center.

Scruggs said among the some 150,000 mementos people have left at the wall since it opened in 1982 are Australian brand Foster's beer, Boonie hats worn by the Australian military and boomerangs.

Before Australia's gift, organizers had raised $26 million of some $85 million needed to build the planned exhibit space. Scruggs said he expected Australia's gift would spur other donations.

Plans for the underground center include displays of items left at the wall as well as a rotating display of photographs of the some 58,000 people who died. Scruggs, who wore a tie with kangaroos for Monday's event, which was also attended by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, said his group has now collected photos of 15,000 people whose names are on the wall.

Congress authorized the new visitor center in 2003, and organizers had hoped to break ground in 2010. Scruggs said groundbreaking will likely be in 2012 or 2013 and that it could take up to two years to build the center.