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Thousands Demonstrate in Australia to Protest War in Iraq - 2004-03-20

In Australia, thousands of people marched to protest the first anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. The conservative government of John Howard sent 2,000 troops to join the campaign, a decision that has caused unease among many Australians. There were far fewer protesters this year than last, when the invasion began.

The demonstrators claimed that Australia's involvement in the Iraq invasion has made the country more of a target for terrorists, a claim strongly rejected by the government.

Community and church leaders have addressed rallies up and down Australia with a simple message - that the authorities were wrong to send troops to the Gulf and that in doing so they breached international law.

"You know, I am just a regular Australian person," said one woman, " and all I can say is you must have wanted destabilization and on top of that you breached international law."

"We are here to express the opinion that what has gone on in Iraq is wrong, that what has happened in Afghanistan is wrong," said one man.

Demonstrations have also been held in New Zealand, where the left-of-center government refused to deploy troops last year.

Australia was the third combat force in Iraq, dispatching 2,000 troops in the country's biggest combat deployment since the Vietnam War. There are 850 Australians still stationed in Iraq.

National security will likely be a hot campaign issue in federal elections later this year.

Many believe the current government of conservative Prime Minister John Howard, which has been in power for eight years, could lose the election because of its support of Washington's war on terror.

Mr. Howard has insisted Australia's long-term security depends on close military ties with the United States.