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Australian PM in Indonesia to Discuss Iraq Crisis - 2003-02-14

Australian Prime Minister John Howard has arrived in the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, for a short visit to discuss the Iraq crisis. The visit comes as the U.N.'s chief weapons inspector Hans Blix is expected to make a presentation to the U.N. Security Council Friday.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard is expected to to reassure Indonesian leaders about a possible war in Iraq. Before his arrival, Mr. Howard said he intends to tell President Megawati Sukarnoputri that the crisis with Iraq has nothing to do with religious issues or Islam. Rather, he says, Australia is focused on Iraq's alleged weapons program.

Indonesia has more Muslims than any other nation. The government has said it is against any military action to disarm Iraq that does not have the approval of the U.N. Security Council.

The United States has said, if necessary, it will act without U.N. approved to rid Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction. Australia and Britain are Washington's strongest supporters on this issue.

The Indonesian government, however, is worried about a possible backlash against Westerners and Western-owned businesses in the country.

Mr. Howard is scheduled to meet with the Indonesian president and senior politicians on Saturday, as well as leaders from some Islamic organizations. He declined to speak to reporters upon his arrival in the Indonesian capital Friday.

Indonesia is the last stop on Mr. Howard's three-nation, around the world trip. He visited the United States, where he met with President Bush, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan and U.N. chief weapons inspector Hans Blix.

Mr. Howard also with British Prime Minister Tony Blair in London on Thursday. Mr. Howard told reporters there that standing up to Iraq was critical in facing another potentially dangerous crisis, North Korea's resurgent nuclear ambitions. "The clear message in relation to Iraq is that [if] we go weak and somehow or other walk away from that and think the problem will solve itself, that will further embolden the North Koreans," he said.

Australia has sent some two-thousand troops to the Persian Gulf alongside British and American forces deployed there. However, Mr. Howard says his government has not yet decided if Australian soldiers would take part in any attack.

In the past, Indonesia and Australia have suffered from strained relations. But the relationship has improved since both nations began working together to investigate the October 12 bomb attack on the Indonesian island of Bali. More than 190 people died in the attack, most of them foreign tourists. Among the victims were 88 Australians.

In his meetings on Saturday, Mr. Howard is also expected to praise Indonesian authorities for the progress made in the investigation. Several of the key plotters have been arrested, including the alleged masterminds.