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CANBERRA, Australia (AP) -- Prime Minister John Howard said Tuesday his government would commit 2,000 military personnel to any U.S.-led strike aimed at disarming Iraq.
"The government has authorized the chief of the Australian Defense Force to place the Australian forces already deployed in the Gulf region as part of any U.S. led coalition operation that may take place in the future," a somber Howard, flanked by two Australian flags, said in a televised address to the nation.
Howard's comments came just hours after President Bush called him to ask Australian troops to join his "coalition of the willing."
"The action that has to be taken as a result of this decision has a sound legal basis in the resolutions of the Security Council that have already been passed," Howard added.
Howard said if international forces massed on Iraq's borders were withdrawn, "any semblance of cooperation from Iraq (with weapons inspectors) would disappear."
Howard said he was "very conscious" of the opposition to his decision in the Australian community. A poll published Tuesday showed 71 percent of voters oppose U.S.-led strikes.
"This government has taken a decision which it genuinely believes is in the medium and longer term interests of this country," Howard said.
Another sign of opposition was emblazoned on the Sydney Opera House early Tuesday in the form of huge red letters spelling out "No War" on the landmark building.
Howard, one of Bush's staunchest supporters, pulled his Cabinet in for an early morning emergency session to consider Bush's request for military support.
The meeting broke up after only 50 minutes and Howard then briefed lawmakers before addressing the nation.
Answering questions from reporters in Canberra after the address, Howard refused to discuss a timetable for military action, saying that was now an "operational" matter.
Howard said the government had no intention of increasing its deployment from the current 2,000.
Howard's decision was to be debated later Tuesday in parliament but would not be put to a vote.
Opposition Labor Party leader Simon Crean earlier warned Australian involvement in a U.S.-led strike would put Australia at greater risk of terror attacks.
"Our involvement in this war will spawn terrorism and encourage terrorists and Australia will as a consequence become more of a target," Crean told reporters.
Bush placed the call following an announcement Monday that the United States, Britain and Spain would not seek a Security Council vote on their U.N. resolution seeking authorization for war -- a move that all but ended diplomatic efforts to avoid military action.
Australia has elite troops, fighter planes and navy ships in the region.
The government Monday issued new warnings to travelers in the Middle East, advising citizens to leave Iraq, Kuwait and Israel, and to defer nonessential travel to Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Qatar and Bahrain.
(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)