Australian forces to fight in Iraq; Embassy in Canberra closed
Australian forces will fight in a war against Iraq if the United States launches military action, Prime Minister John Howard said on Tuesday.
"This decision was taken at a cabinet meeting this morning following a further telephone discussion between myself and President Bush," Howard told a news conference.
Bush said in the phone call that "final diplomatic attempts...had come to an end," Howard said.
Howard said the U.S. president had requested Australia participate in a military coalition in the event of a strike.
Australia has sent 2,000 troops, including elite SAS troops, fighter jets and warships, to the Gulf, but had not previously committed them to war.
"The Government has authorized the chief of the Australian Defence Force, General Cosgrove, to place the Australian forces already deployed in the Gulf region as part of any US-led coalition operation that may take place in the future, directed in accordance with existing authority under UN resolutions to disarm Iraq," Howard said.
Polls show at least two-thirds of Australians oppose war in Iraq without U.N. backing and Howard said he was aware the government's decision might upset many people.
"I am very conscious of how difficult this issue is for many people in Australia. I respect the fact that not all will agree with me. I ask them to understand that this government has taken a decision which it genuinely believes is in the medium and longer term interest of the country," Howard said.
A poll issued on Tuesday showed opposition to a war might be softening. Sixty-eight percent of 1,200 adults surveyed by Newspoll were opposed to war without U.N. backing, down from 71 percent two weeks ago and 76 percent at the beginning of February.
Howard insisted that any military action against Iraq would be legal even without a second U.N. resolution.
"As far as the legality is concerned, military action to enforce existing resolutions has adequate legal authority and is entirely consistent with international law, according to the advice we have received," he said earlier on Tuesday.
Howard said Australia had not declared war on Iraq. "If you're asking about whether a formal declaration of war is needed, no it's not, because the action is being taken, on our advice, pursuant to existing Security Council resolutions. "So there's no formal declaration needed."
He said Australian forces would operate under separate Australian command.
"They will fight according to Australian rules of engagement, they will operate in accordance with Australian targeting policies and in a number of significant respects Australian targeting policies are tighter and more in line with certain conventions than those of the United States," Howard said.
Meanwhile, the Australian Government has told five Iraqi diplomats and their families to leave the country.
Foreign Affairs Minister, Alexander Downer, said he was closing the Iraqi embassy in Canberra because the diplomats represented Saddam Hussein's regime.
The officials have until Sunday to leave the country. Downer conveyed it was a prudent move that will strengthen Australia's security.
He said: "We've obviously given consideration to what we would do in the event that we decided to participate in a military coalition to disarm Saddam Hussein [and] this is one of the issues that I've been looking at over the weekend." (Albawaba.com)
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