President Hosts Australia's PM at Texas Ranch

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Australia's prime minister backed President Bush in the Iraq (search) war despite sharp opposition at home, and Bush was paying off the IOU by playing host to John Howard (search) on his Texas ranch.

Bush picked Howard and his wife, Janette, up in northern California on Friday as both men were traveling through the region. Dining together on the ranch in nearby Crawford, the Bushes and Howards had smoked beef tenderloin, grilled okra and green chili cheese grits — the last item a Bush favorite. He served it last month at Easter dinner.

The two leaders were meeting on national security and trade issues Saturday and planned a joint news conference.

Howard's decision to send forces to Iraq ignited mass protests across Australia, with hundreds of thousands attending peace rallies in major cities. In March, after Howard committed troops to the coming war, he was forced to leave his official residence on foot when anti-war protesters barricaded the entrances, blocking his motorcade from driving out of the gates.

Eventually, the numbers at anti-war demonstrations dwindled to tens of thousands, and Howard's popularity soared.

Bush viewed Howard's leadership as gutsy in the same way he appreciated Prime Minister Tony Blair's pro-U.S. stance in the face of strong opposition at home, senior administration officials said.

Australia sent some 2,000 members of its armed services to the Iraq war. It also deployed military forces to anti-terrorism efforts in Afghanistan.

The anti-terror campaign took on special urgency for Australia after bombings on the Indonesian island of Bali killed 88 Australians last Oct. 12.

"Prime Minister Howard has been a strong ally in the war on terror, and Australian forces have played an important role in the liberation of Iraq," Bush said in his weekly radio address Saturday.

He recited a litany of Australian contributions in Iraq. The country's armed forces disrupted Iraqi troop movements, "paving the way for Army and Marine units making their way to Baghdad," he said. Australian fighter jets carried out "deep bombing runs," and Australian Navy divers cleared mines in ports.

"All Australians can be justly proud of the superb performance of Australia's air, naval and special forces in Operation Iraqi Freedom (search)," Bush said. "America is deeply grateful for their important contributions."

The president's treatment of Howard stood in stark contrast to that of Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien, who opposed Bush on the Iraq war.

Bush was scheduled to meet with Chretien in Ottawa on Monday, but the president scrapped the visit.

At the time, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said the "postponement" was necessary "due to the president's ongoing obligations to help the people of Iraq build a nation that is whole, free and at peace."

Bush will give a speech on the economy in Arkansas on Monday instead. He has not rescheduled the meeting with Chretien.

Earlier Saturday, Bush spoke to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and with Jordan's King Abdullah II. The leaders discussed Bush's blueprint for peace in the Middle East. It was not clear if Howard joined in the discussions.