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Some Australians Question Support to US - 2002-10-29

The bombing in Bali, Indonesia, this month has only strengthened Australia's commitment to the U.S.-led war on terrorism as most of the victims were Australian tourists. Australian Prime Minister John Howard described the attack on the resort island as "barbaric, brutal, mass murder." There is, however, growing disquiet in Australia that the government's unbending support for the United States could drag the country into a new war in the Middle East.

The bombing in Bali has propelled Australia to the front-line of international terrorism. There is broad agreement among all the political parties here that no effort should be spared to track down the bombers, as part of a global anti-terror campaign. Just how that can be achieved and what Australia's role should be is where this consensus breaks down.

Central to the debate is John Howard's conservative government support for the United State's stance on ridding Iraq of its suspected biological, chemical and nuclear weapons as a major component of the war on terror. Mr. Howard has said if the United Nations fails to reign in Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, then military action would almost certainly follow - with Australia's backing.

Senator Alan Ferguson is the conservative chairman of the powerful upper house committee on Foreign Affairs and Defense. He believes the Bali massacre has opened up a new front in the global war on terror that Australia has a duty to patrol. "We must be conscious of what's happening in our own region and feed that in to the knowledge that's available from intelligence agencies throughout the rest of the world," he says. "And we will commit ourselves to whatever capacity we have to try to stamp out terrorism but it is very difficult but we are determined that we will play our part and do what we can."

These are the most trying times for Australia since World War II. A week after the bombing, the country observed a national day of mourning as the bodies of the victims began to arrive home.

Andrew Bartlett is the head of Australian Democrats, a minor yet influential party in the upper house of Parliament. He says the prime minister's support for Washington's Iraq policy is misguided. "The idea of a first strike or unilateral action by any nation U.S. or others is a very dangerous precedent. It would go against international law and standard practice for maintaining international relations for the last 50 years or more and we've been pushing strongly for our government to take a stronger stand to rule that out," says Mr. Bartlett. "We think the case hasn't been made about there being an imminent danger about whether this is going to lead to more peaceful long-term outcome or actually create more instability."

The head of Australia's Anglican Church has said the Bali bombing was an inevitable consequence of Canberra's close alliance with the United States. Doctor Peter Carnley said it was a payback for Australia's support for a possible unilateral U.S. strike against Iraq. "I think it was our lot in fact to suffer because of our close association with America anyway. I think any government with an alliance with America would have been in the firing line. It is fairly obvious that we are seen as enemies of certain sections of Islam anyway," said Mr. Carnley "I think the terrorist motivation is pretty clear and I have said on many times that they think Western culture is something to be hated and quite evil, and I think that's what's behind the terrorist activity."

Earlier this month the Greens achieved a remarkable political breakthrough here by winning their first seat in the lower house of Parliament. The party's leader, Senator Bob Brown, claims its strong anti-war message was the reason for its by-election success. "We shouldn't be taking part in a Bush-lead invasion of Baghdad," he says. "There are growing protests in the streets of Australia. There were 45,000 people in Melbourne the weekend before last protesting against Australia's potential involvement in a war in Iraq. There's nobody protesting that we should go to a war in Iraq"

Some in Australia see the military alliance between Canberra and the United States, that dates back to the 1950s, as the best way to fight international terrorism and achieve justice for the victims of Bali. Others fear it will drag this country into a war in Iraq, which could do untold damage and put its citizens in more danger by avenging terrorists.