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Australian PM Heads to Washington to Discuss Iraq

One of Washington' staunchest allies, Australian Prime Minister John Howard, left for the United States Saturday for talks on Iraq. Before his departure, the prime minister said the situation was moving decisively towards war, and called on the United Nations to assume responsibility for disarming the Iraqi regime.

Mr. Howard is guaranteed a warm welcome when he meets President Bush in Washington on Monday. Apart from Britain, Australia is the only country to contribute to Washington's build-up of military forces in the Persian Gulf. Despite overwhelming public opposition, Mr. Howard stuck to his support of American policy on Saturday, and Australian military deployments to the Gulf continue.

One-hundred-fifty personnel from the Tindal airbase in the Northern Territory were sent off on Friday, and 250 more are due to leave in the next few days. The total Australian contingent will comprise two-thousand troops, including elite squads of commandos, navy and air force transport units and fighter jets.

Before his departure, Mr. Howard said he will push for a second United Nations resolution against Baghdad during his week-long trip overseas. He called for a strong, united international approach to ensure that Iraq is disarmed of any weapons of mass destruction. But the Australian leader, like President Bush, hinted that war is coming closer no matter what happens at the United Nations. "The most responsible thing for the government to do is to hold back right until a decision has to be taken," he said. "Oh, I think we are getting to the end game. I don't think there's much doubt about that at all."

This past week has witnessed some of Australia's fiercest parliamentary debate in recent years. The opposition Labor Party insists the government is wrong to back American-led action without sanction from the United Nations. Opinion polls here suggest that most Australians agree.

As the prime minister began his trip, opposition leader Simon Crean said Mr. Howard believed "he was on a mission of a peace" but in reality "he was just a cheerleader for war." The Labor Party says Mr. Howard has now deployed Australia's largest combat force since the Vietnam War.

After his talks in the United States, the prime minister will meet his British counterpart, Tony Blair, in London. He will then travel on to Jakarta, where he is due to discuss the prospect of war with Indonesia's President Megawati Sukarnoputri.