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Last Updated:  Saturday, 15 March, 2003, 13:02 GMT
Leading Australia into battle

By Phil Mercer
BBC correspondent in Sydney

Sydney anti-war protester with newspapers
There is public dismay over Howard's support for the US stance on Iraq

"I'm getting a lot of funny looks wearing this," said the man as he walked into my local gym in Sydney, wearing a teeshirt emblazoned with the Stars and Stripes.

"It's not gone down well out there," he added, looking outside. "I should have worn something else."

From coffee-time conversations to talk-back radio, Australia's willingness to fight alongside the United States to disarm Iraq has captivated this country.

Earlier this week, the conservative Prime Minister, John Howard, delivered a hawkish national address, setting out his case for a war in the Gulf.

'Yankee Poodle Johnny'

Writing in the Sydney Morning Herald, columnist Andrew Ramsey said Mr Howard's arguments proved that "the time has come when he should get out of public life."

The prime minister and his colleagues know that they may well have to make a decision on what they think is right without a clear majority support
Former adviser Graeme Morris
"His was the speech of a tired, soiled leader with a tired, soiled message," he added.

"Yankee Poodle Johnny" is how other critics have lampooned the prime minister's close association with Washington.

Australia has sent 2,000 troops and military hardware to the Middle East in support of the US build-up.

The former Labor Premier, Paul Keating, said it was time Mr Howard stopped "cuddling up" to the Americans and started cultivating meaningful alliances in his own backyard in Asia.

Forging on

Opinion polls suggest John Howard is about to lead an unwilling nation into battle.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard
Howard has a loyal following in "Middle Australia"
The majority of Australians believe war should only be waged with the approval of the United Nations.

Mr Howard has acknowledged that many people disagree with him, but he is forging on regardless.

As a former adviser, Graeme Morris, put it: "The prime minister and his colleagues know that they may well have to make a decision on what they think is right without a clear majority support."

Politically, going against the grain in this way is very risky.

Some commentators believe shunning public opinion amounts to a rejection of democracy.

Loyal following

At 64 years of age and nearing retirement, Mr Howard has put his reputation on the line.

People are coming out of the woodwork because they're angry and scared
Australian anti-war protest organiser
The success of his government at the next federal election due in 2004 could also depend on what happens in Iraq.

But Mr Howard is a shrewd politician.

He is a survivor who trusts his own judgement and who will believe that "Middle Australia" - those ordinary, decent, hard-working suburban folk not found at the extremes of opinion - will ultimately support him.

Despite an overriding sense of public dismay at his unconditional support for a US-led strike on the Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein, he will hope a quick and successful war will mark him as a leader of vision.

After three successive terms in office, the prime minister has a loyal following, and is not without support here.

"I am proud to be an Australian," barked a letter in the Sydney Morning Herald; "and I am even prouder to have a prime minister with the moral fibre, fortitude and strategic foresight of John Howard."

Dissent spreading

Mass anti-war rallies in Australia in recent weeks show that many people see things very differently.

In Adelaide, protestors threw eggs at the prime minister as he arrived for an official function.

The dissent appears to be spreading.

A series of unprecedented protests and marches have been held this weekend in small country towns across the country, and yet more rallies are planned.

"People are coming out of the woodwork because they're angry and scared," said the organiser of a peace parade in Victoria.

Shelley, a 29-year-old vet, told BBC News Online that pressure must be maintained on the government to force a re-think about a war with Iraq.

"We will continue to shout loudly until they take notice of us," she said.

"I believe that we can force them to change their minds. We have to."

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