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Howard under fire over Iraq

From Hugh Williams for CNN

The heat is on: Howard and Blair are facing criticism over their decision to join the U.S.-led coalition.
The heat is on: Howard and Blair are facing criticism over their decision to join the U.S.-led coalition.

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SYDNEY, Australia (CNN) -- The death of 88 Australians in the Bali bombing last year brought the threat of terrorism much closer to home, and the issue of national security to the political forefront.

And just like the U.S. and Britain, in Australia the government used the global fight against terrorism to help make the case for war in Iraq.

Prime Minister John Howard -- while justifying Australia's decision to join the "coalition of willing" to oust Saddam Hussein -- included in a speech the now discredited African Uranium claim.

"Uranium has been sought from Africa for non-civil purposes," he said in a February parliamentary address.

But now Howard concedes that anything he said that might have been misleading was not intentionally misleading, and that the disputed intelligence did not undermine his case for war.

"If this material had been specifically drawn to my attention, it wouldn't have made the slightest bit of difference to the decision," he says.

The prime ministers' advisors in the Office of National Assessment -- one of Australia's intelligence agencies -- are taking the blame.

The government has come under fire from all sides.

"John Howard's credibility on the entire Iraq war has been torpedoed by John Howard's own intelligence agency," opposition deputy Kevin Rudd says.

And Democratic leader Andrew Bartlett has attacked the prime minister's handling of the situation.

"The Prime Minister is treating the Australian people with contempt. Truthfulness in politics is actually an important thing."

Howard has been criticised for not standing up to Bush.
Howard has been criticised for not standing up to Bush.

So how badly has this row undermined the confidence Australians have in their government?

"There would be a minority view that would hold that John Howard deceived the electorate, but I don't think that that would be widely held," Gerard Henderson, political analyst at the Sydney Institute, told CNN.

"And certainly not significant enough to threaten the future of the government in Australia."

Australians' thoughts are now focusing on the almost nightly newscasts broadcasting the latest events in the Bali bombing trial.

And with no Australian military deaths so far in the Iraq operation, the now dated issue of Baghdad's potential nuclear capability has been replaced with a very real fear of North Korea.

But politicians will again face tough questions about their decision to go to war against Iraq when a parliamentary inquiry is held next month on pre-war intelligence.

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