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Australian Hawkish Iraq Stand Gets Flak
Few of Washington's allies appear as keen for a war with Iraq as Australia.

But as Baghdad threatens to cancel lucrative Australian wheat imports, an increasing number of critics are wondering why Canberra has taken such a hawkish stance and are calling on the conservative government to tone down its "Rambo" rhetoric.

"We need a considered approach, not a hot-headed one. The hot-headed one is costing Australia very dearly," Simon Crean, leader of the opposition centre-left Labour Party, said on Monday.

Labour said it would be unjustifiable if what it calls the government's "Rambo-like" talk costs the wheat industry US$430 million in annual sales.

For the last two weeks, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer has been steadfastly drumming home the message that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein must not be "appeased."

His search for weapons of mass destruction represents a threat to world stability that cannot be ignored, Downer said.

Prime Minister John Howard has added his own, slightly less war-like tones, saying he considered it "more probable than not" that the United States would take action against Iraq and that Australians have to consider what their country could do to help.

Australia's enthusiastic, and some say premature, support for whatever the United States decides contrasts with opposition from most of Washington's European and Arab allies, except Britain.

It has also angered the Iraqis, who have threatened to cancel 500,000 tons of possible wheat purchases out of Australia's 2.4 million tons in annual wheat sales to Baghdad.

"The comments of Mr Downer and Mr Howard have been tougher and more hostile than even the Americans," complained Iraq's envoy to Canberra, Saad Al Samarai, in an interview with the Weekend Australian, published on Saturday.

While Downer on Monday vowed the government would not bow to Iraqi trade threats, and Howard angrily rejected accusations of "Rambo" talk, Australian wheat officials joined the Labour Party in urging the government to be more cautious.

Former Labour Prime Minister Bob Hawke went further.

Without more diplomatic efforts to get United Nations weapons inspectors back into Iraq, and without evidence tying Baghdad to the al-Qaida Islamic militants blamed for the September 11 terrorism attacks on the United States, there is "no justification for spilling one drop of Australian blood" in a new Iraq war, he said.

But commentators said spilling blood may not be the real issue, particularly since doubts exist about what Australia's already over-extended armed forces could contribute to any campaign apart from a few warships already in the Gulf.

As a staunch ally of the United States keen to seal a free trade deal, it is in Australia's interest to stand out as one of Washington's most unquestioning friends, they said.

The Howard government may also be alarmed at apparent widespread public indifference or outright opposition, as indicated by informal online surveys, to a US-led campaign against Iraq unless Baghdad has concrete links to al-Qaida.

It would be embarrassing for Australia to be constrained by public opinion if it had to answer a call to war from the United States, so Canberra may be attempting a pre-emptive PR campaign.

"(The government) has to close the gap between its enthusiasm for war and public indifference," said Scott Burchill, a lecturer in international affairs at Melbourne's Deakin University.

There is another possibility that may explain Downer's stand.

Many expect Howard to step aside midway through his third three-year term, leading to a reshuffling of cabinet positions and the deputy prime ministership in particular.

Political analysts said Downer may have his eye on a promotion and may want to shape a new tough guy image to appeal to party hardliners.

"This is partly a chest-beating exercise to position themselves within the parliamentary party," said Jim Jupp, a political analyst at Australian National University. "Also, of course, we're trying to get this free trade agreement with the United States. We're playing around with US public opinion as well as our own."

(China Daily August 14, 2002)

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