(AP) - Vice President Dick Cheney arrives in Australia on Thursday to thank one of Washington's staunchest supporters of the increasingly unpopular Iraq war - an ally that has become a rarity by offering more, not fewer, troops for Iraq and Afghanistan.
Iraq and other security issues are expected to dominate Cheney's three-day visit and talks with Prime Minister John Howard, who is under increasing political pressure to set an exit strategy for Australia's 1,400 troops in and around Iraq.
The focus intensified Wednesday when the British government and other allies announced plans to start withdrawing forces from Iraq, leaving Howard to explain why he is not doing the same.
Opinion polls show the Iraq conflict is deeply unpopular among Australians, and anti-war demonstrations are planned outside venues in Sydney where Cheney is to speak or hold meetings.
Hours before Cheney's arrival, police clashed with protesters at Sydney's town hall. Ten people were arrested after about 200 demonstrators tried to break through a police cordon and march on the U.S. consulate.
Meantime, U.S. troops battled insurgents in fierce fighting that killed at least 12 people in the volatile Sunni city of Ramadi, the military said Thursday. Iraqi authorities said the dead included women and children.
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The six-hour firefight began after the U.S. troops were attacked by insurgents with small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades Wednesday evening in eastern Ramadi, said Marine spokesman 1st Lt. Shawn Mercer.
The fighting ended after "precision guided munitions" damaged a number of buildings being used by the insurgents, he said. Twelve insurgents were killed and three were wounded, he said, adding that there were no civilian casualties.
U.S. and Iraqi authorities, meanwhile, vowed to fight back after so-called "dirty" chemical attacks signaled a change in insurgent tactics.
Maj. Gen. William Caldwell, the chief U.S. military spokesman, said a raid on five buildings near Fallujah uncovered three vehicle bombs that were being assembled with about 65 propane tanks and "all kinds of ordinary chemicals." He added that he believed the insurgents were going to try to mix the chemicals with explosives.
"What we are seeing is a change in the tactics, but their strategy has not changed. And that's to create high-profile attacks to instill fear and division amongst the Iraqi people," he told CNN. "It's a real crude attempt to raise the terror level by taking and mixing ordinary chemicals with explosive devices, trying to instill that fear within the Iraqi people."
But he suggested the strategy was backfiring by turning public opinion against the insurgents, saying the number of tips provided by Iraqis had doubled in the last six months.
(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)