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Australia 'Likely' to Participate in War Against Iraq - 2003-03-17

Australia's prime minister says his country's involvement in a war with Iraq is growing "more likely." John Howard will convene a meeting of his cabinet to decide whether Australian troops now in the Persian Gulf will actually join the fighting, if the United States leads an attack on Iraq.

Prime Minister John Howard will meet with his cabinet Monday night to discuss the Iraq situation. He says within a few days the cabinet will make a final decision on sending Australians to join a U.S.-led offensive to force Iraq to disarm.

Mr. Howard, a strong supporter of Washington's Iraq policy, has hinted Australian forces will take part in the fighting even if the United Nations Security Council does not approve.

Mr. Howard spoke with President Bush Monday morning after the president met with the prime ministers of Britain and Spain. After that meeting, Mr. Bush said the United Nations should decide to act on Iraq on Monday. "Military participation by Australia in action against Iraq is now looking more likely than it may have appeared even a few days ago," he said. Mr. Howard has the support of his ruling conservative coalition. However, he faces strong public opposition to a war in Iraq.

The Treasurer, Peter Costello has said stability in the Middle East can only be achieved by military intervention in Iraq. Foreign Minister Alexander Downer says he expects President Bush to give the go-ahead for war in the coming days.

Last week, the prime minister, in a national address, said there was every chance Iraq's biological and chemical weapons would fall into the hands of terrorists if action were not taken against Baghdad.

Critics have challenged Mr. Howard to support these claims with compelling evidence.

The United States and Britain say Iraq must give up its weapons program and comply with United Nations demands that it disarm. Washington says it will use force if necessary to disarm Baghdad.

Opinion polls suggest the majority of Australians oppose any war with Iraq without U.N. backing. Over the past weeks, tens of thousands of people have attended peace rallies across the country. A large protest is planned for the capital, Canberra, later this week.

Two thousand Australian troops are already in the Persian Gulf, joining U.S and British forces trying to put pressure on Iraq. The deployment includes commando units, navy ships, chemical and biological warfare teams and a squadron of fighter jets.