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Australian Political Debate Over Iraq Becomes Increasingly Heated - 2003-02-07

Australia's political debate over Iraq is becoming increasingly heated, with Prime Minister John Howard's support for American policy facing wide-spread opposition. One opposition politician called President Bush "incompetent and dangerous," forcing the American ambassador to reply that such personal attacks threaten Australian-American ties.

Political debate in Australia over the government's strong support for the U.S. military build-up in the Persian Gulf raged throughout the week in Canberra.

Prime Minister John Howard addressed Parliament early in the week in an effort to sway critics, only to suffer a major defeat when the upper house handed him a vote of no-confidence.

As the tone of the debate grew more heated, one prominent opposition lawmaker, Mark Latham, described President Bush as "the most incompetent and dangerous president in living memory."

The American ambassador in Canberra, Tom Scheiffer, responded by saying such comments were "very personal and very motional" and could affect relations between the two allies. "I think there is some concern on some of the rhetoric that's been used in the last few days," he said. "It's not the sort of thing you couldn't read without having some concern about the relationship."

Opinion polls suggest two-thirds of the Australian public oppose any Australian involvement in a possible war to divest Iraq of its suspected weapons of mass destruction.

The Labor Party-led opposition is insisting the government is wrong to back U.S. led action without sanction from the United Nations.

In an effort to calm the potential diplomatic fallout from the debate, Labor's leader, Simon Crean, stressed the target of his anti-war sentiment is the Australian prime minister, not the American President. "My argument is with John Howard," he said. "It's not critical of the U.S. President, it's critical of John Howard of being too compliant to what the U.S. President wants."

Australia is the only country apart from Britain so far to contribute to Washington's military build-up in the Middle East. One-hundred-50 military personnel, including crew and support staff for three Hercules transport planes, left Australia for the Gulf Friday even as the debate continued. A further 250 air force personnel are due to leave in the coming days.

Mr. Howard has taken a tough stand on Iraq, saying Baghdad is deceiving the international community and the United Nations must take decisive action to disarm Iraq or lose its credibility. But he has stopped short of committing Australia's deployed troops should there be an eventual war.

The prime minister leaves Sunday for the United States for meetings with President Bush and the United Nations Secretary-General, Kofi Annan.

He leaves behind an increasingly nervous country, which fears more terrorist attacks for backing U.S. policy on the issue. Authorities closed down a Sydney train station and a nearby street Thursday after a suspicious package was found, and a rail worker was taken to hospital with a mysterious illness.

Every household in Australia is being sent a terrorist information kit by the government. It gives tips on first aid and on how to spot possible terrorists, and includes survival gear, such as flashlights, fire extinguishers and emergency food and water rations.

The country has been in a state of heightened concern since October, when a terrorist bombing on the Indonesian island of Bali killed 192 people, including 88 Australians.