- The Washington Times - Friday, March 28, 2003

SYDNEY, Australia, March 28 (UPI) — Much to the chagrin of many Australians, Australia's small role in the second Gulf War has now become common international knowledge, leaving people anxious that this distant island nation now looms large on the radar screens of terrorist organizations.

Australia has 2,000 personnel deployed in the Gulf. There are F/A-18 fighter pilots flying bombing raids, naval divers clearing mines from the murky harbor at Umm Qasr, and 150 crack SAS troops working in reconnaissance missions behind enemy lines.

Until recently, their role was barely recognized. Now, with President George W. Bush mentioning us in his summit address Thursday, and the BBC and CNN beaming footage of Aussie minesweepers, all that has changed.

"I think inescapably we are a much bigger target," Ron Huisken, professor of strategic and defense studies at the Australian National University, told United Press International.

His assessment is echoed by many Australians. "Retaliation, the fact we could be very vulnerable, worries me," said Sydney pharmacist Sue Britton.

Solicitor Margaret Crouch also spoke for many Australians: "I was always against Australia joining the war. Now it's started I want it over as soon as possible."

Not that the war has hurt the political fortunes of Prime Minister John Howard, who almost single-handedly soldered Australia to what Bush has dubbed coalition of the willing. His approval rating is, as they say, moving north. So is popular support for the war effort, even though loud and sometimes violent peace marches have grabbed the headlines in recent days.

"Once the troops went in, even the most hardened peaceniks shut up," said Huisken. "Nobody wanted to undermine the morale of the troops."

Even so, the majority of Australians appear to still believe we should not have troops in Iraq. Even the conservative Returned Soldiers League opposes Australia's involvement.

By and large, Arab Australians, who number nearly a quarter million, are wrapping their position on the war in careful phrases, fearing a racist backlash. Ask your Arab-born taxi-driver what they think of the war, and more often than not they will level blame on American Jews and Israel. Prod a little, and they will often tell you they hope Saddam is ousted.

"Everyone hates Saddam," a Syrian-born refugee told UPI.

Those Arabs most in favor of the war are Iraqi exiles, many of whom are here because they fled Saddam's oppressive regime.

Not that that's what local Arab leaders are saying. "Those for the war are very hard to find," said Keysar Trad, director of the Lebanese Muslim Association. "Even the Iraqis who dislike Saddam are opposed to the war because they see it as an imperialist war. Besides, they want to depose Saddam themselves."

While most Arab Australians are keeping a low profile, some are taking direct action in opposing the war. This week, police accused "youths of Middle Eastern appearance" of damaging public property during an anti-war rally in Sydney, including smashing eight stained glass windows of Sydney's historic St Andrew's Cathedral. The verger of St Andrew's was reported in local media as saying a group of teenagers apparently mistook the cathedral for a synagogue.

"People's emotions are running fairly high," Roland Jabbour of the Australian Arabic Council told UPI.

Jeremy Jones, president of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, said the war has once again led to increased acts of anti-Semitism.

"During the first Gulf War, one-quarter of the synagogues in Sydney were subject to arson attack, and there was increased harassment of Jews in the street," said Jones. "In the week since this war started, there's been one arson attack on a Sydney synagogue, one Jewish man was beaten up and the Jewish Museum in Melbourne was daubed with graffiti that said "Kill the Jews."

Jones is critical of some of the people attending the peace rallies. "There are a number of Jewish Australians who are anti-U.S. and anti-war. But I'm getting calls from people who are broken-hearted because they feel they can't go in the peace rallies because of the open hostility against Jews. In some rallies, there are banners with swastikas painted over the star of David (the Jewish star)."

Jones said that most Jews he knows had hoped war would not eventuate, but now it has they hope it will be successful for the allied forces.

As for the exact whereabouts and tasks of the troops in Iraq, Australians are being kept in the dark. Extracting information from the Australian Defence Force is like pulling teeth. Australian reporters are not even allowed to be embedded with the Aussie troops.

"We have embeds with U.S. marines, but not with our own forces," Bronwen Kiely, foreign editor of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, the government broadcaster, told UPI. "The only time we get footage of them is through the BBC or CNN. It's a bizarre situation. At the start of the war, they even refused to tell us where the media center was located."

Australians may be ignorant of their precise locations and functions but, according to Professor Huisken, "pound for pound Australian troops are delivering great value." Even former Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, in Australia this week, praised the country's special forces as being one of the three best such forces in the world.

While many in the Australian contingent are "in harm's way," Defense Force Chief, General Peter Cosgrove, said today all remained safe and uninjured.

Tragically, the only Australian casualty has been cameraman Paul Moran, who was killed last Saturday while working for ABC in northern Iraq. A suicide bomber — said to be a Saudi national from the terrorist group Ansar al-Islam — blew himself up at a Kurdish checkpoint Moran was filming. The incident gave Australia the sad distinction of having the first media casualty of the war.

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