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Australia: War with Iraq Could Begin Thursday - 2003-03-19

The Australian government says there's every chance the war against Iraq will begin Thursday, as soon as the U.S. deadline for the Iraqi leader to leave the country passes. The United States has given Saddam Hussein until one o'clock (1300) universal time Thursday to leave Iraq.

Australia's Foreign Minister Alexander Downer says Saddam Hussein is unlikely to comply with Washington's ultimatum to go into exile by Thursday. Mr. Downer says in that event, war is likely to break out as soon as the deadline passes. "Yes, I think there's every chance that that's going to happen. Because what we're hoping was that Saddam Hussein would take advantage of the 48-hour ultimatum, but it doesn't look to us as though he is going to take advantage of that," said Mr. Downer. "That he's going to stick it out."

U.S. government and military officials, however, have not indicated when an attack might begin.

Prime Minister John Howard said Tuesday that Australian troops would fight in a war against Iraq if the United States launched military action. Australia has committed two-thousand troops, warplanes and navy ships to the Gulf region. Mr. Downer says he hopes the war will be swift with minimal casualties.

One Australian government minister has speculated the war could increase the risk of a terrorist attacks against Australia. But the prime minister says he has not been advised of any such risk.

The prime minister's commitment to a military invasion has sparked the biggest protests in Australia since the Vietnam War, with more protests expected once the war begins.

The United States and its allies say Iraq has not complied with United Nations demands that it abandon suspected efforts to build weapons of mass destruction.