When Washington called for help to fight a war in Iraq, Australia dispatched troops and pledged to stay the course. A year later, despite political fallout and withdrawals by other nations, there’s no sign of wavering, and the government hinted Monday it may even send more troops.
Prime Minister John Howard underscored his resolve Sunday by making a surprise visit to troops in Baghdad to commemorate Australia’s involvement in the ill-fated World War I Gallipoli campaign. He wore camouflage body armor as automatic gunfire crackled in the background.
Howard, who is seeking a fourth term, has cast his nation’s alliance with the United States as a political jewel. To further display solidarity with President Bush, Howard is expected to call for voting around the time of U.S. presidential elections in November.
Howard’s trip to Baghdad, on Australia’s national veterans’ day holiday, echoed Bush’s Thanksgiving visit to boost morale but also depicted him as a man of action keen to listen to the troops on the ground.
“They take enormous risk. It’s a small risk I take,” he said.
When suicide attackers struck near southern Iraq’s oil facilities in the Persian Gulf on Saturday, an Australian navy frigate, the HMAS Stuart, rescued wounded Americans, the Australian Defense Department said. Three Americans were killed.
But the U.S.-Australia alliance is turning into one of the year’s biggest political issues, a dramatic departure for federal elections in which candidates’ fortunes usually rise and fall on domestic topics.
Howard’s government is firm in its resolve to remain part of any coalition trying to introduce stability to Iraq even as that effort descends into greater uncertainty. He has condemned other coalition members Spain, Honduras and the Dominican Republic for deciding to pull their soldiers out of Iraq.
“It’s likely to encourage those who are opposed to the coalition to believe that, if they can cause more bloodshed and trouble, then more will pull out,” he told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio last week. “It will encourage the insurgency. It will not encourage more peaceful activity in Iraq.”
The Australian government has earmarked funds to keep troops in Iraq until mid-2005, and Howard hinted Monday that more troops could be sent to Iraq in addition to the 850 already in the area.
“I have made it very clear all along that we did not have the capacity to have large numbers of additional troops … and that remains the case,” Howard told ABC radio. “That doesn’t mean that if there is a small increase for whatever reason in the number of people deployed that that should be seen as some reversal of that original policy.”
The opposition Labor Party has promised to bring back all Australian soldiers by Christmas if it wins the elections.
Howard’s resolve could backfire. The conservative coalition of his Liberal Party and the rural voters’ National Party has slipped behind Labor in recent polls, although Howard remains voters’ preferred leader. If elections were held this week, Howard would lose.
He also has an unsettling precedent to consider in Spain, where challenger Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero’s opposition to the Iraq war contrasted sharply with Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar’s unflinching support.
Terrorist bombings in Madrid that killed 191 people preceded Spain’s March elections by three days, and the country responded by unseating Aznar. Now Zapatero is fulfilling his campaign promise to bring Spain’s troops back.
Labor leader Mark Latham, whose lack of foreign policy experience has been criticized by the sitting government, has made his pledge to bring the troops home a central theme of his campaign.
“Labor’s strategy is not to desert Iraq. We’ve just always said that we don’t see a long-term military involvement as being appropriate,” Latham told ABC television.
“From day one, we said the troops shouldn’t be there in the first place.”
Labor is seen as being strong on welfare, education, health and employment all key issues. But Howard and his conservative government have pushed national security and anti-terror efforts to the forefront.
Revelations that prewar intelligence about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq was faulty have not led to formal investigations unlike in Britain and the United States.
“Even when the weapons as a cause for the war was discredited, there was apparent apathy from the Australian public,” said Paul Strangio, a professor at the School of Political and Social Inquiry at Melbourne’s Monash University.