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Australia to Commit Forces Against Iraq - 2003-03-18

Australian Prime Minister John Howard has said his country will commit its forces to any U.S.-led war against Iraq, despite strong public opposition to a war. The government also is expelling all Iraqi embassy staff.

Prime Minister John Howard says there is a "sound legal basis" for going to war with Iraq. He insists it will be a just campaign, and one that is vital for Australia's security. "The government strongly believes the decision it's taken is right, it is legal, it is directed toward the protection of the Australian national interest and I ask the Australian community to support it," he said.

Following Mr. Howard's announcement, the government ordered Iraqi diplomats to leave Australia.

About two-thousand Australian troops already are in the Persian Gulf, but until Tuesday, the government had not committed them to fighting against Iraq.

Mr. Howard acknowledged that many Australians disagree with his stance on Iraq. A recent opinion poll shows that more than 70 percent of Australians oppose a military strike on Baghdad without the support of the United Nations.

In Sydney, protesters have painted a large anti-war slogan across the Opera House, one of Australia's most famous landmarks. Large anti-war rallies have been held in recent weeks, and more are planned for the next few days.

President Bush asked for Australian combat support in an early morning telephone call to Mr. Howard. Mr. Bush has given Iraq's leader Saddam Hussein 48 hours to leave the country or face war.

The United States, Britain and Spain had asked the United Nations Security Council to approve by Monday a resolution authorizing military force to disarm Iraq. The Security Council did not act on the proposed resolution, and Washington says no new resolution is needed for military action.

The United States has been pushing for months to get Iraq to comply with earlier U.N. demands that it give up suspected programs to develop biological, chemical and nuclear weapons.

Australia's opposition Labor Party has argued that the United Nations, and not the United States and its allies, should be given the responsibility for disarming Saddam.

Labor leader Simon Crean says the government's commitment to the U.S. campaign in the Gulf is a "dark chapter" in Australia's history. Parliament is expected to debate Australian participation in the coming days.