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SYDNEY — A split in the Howard Cabinet ranks over whether to join the United States in refusing to support an International Criminal Court is the most serious threat yet to the dream run so far enjoyed by the Canberra government.

The sudden revolt after four years of in-principal backing for this year’s startup to the war crimes court follows last weekend’s return by Prime Minister John Howard from cozy talks in Washington.

From a promise he gave during last year’s election campaign to ratify Australia’s signing of the Statute of Rome, which establishes the court, Howard now appears to be wavering toward the Bush administration’s rejection of the court on the grounds it would erode national sovereignty. The change is pitting Cabinet ministers against one another and Liberals against their junior coalition partner, the National Party.

The Washington trip was, above all else, symbolically important. The last time Howard was in Washington was Sept. 10. Terrorist hits on the Pentagon and New York’s World Trade Center ended that mission. Hurriedly flown home on a U.S. Air Force jet, Howard left with a promise to return to meet a string of unfilled appointments. In the “new” America he appeared doubly welcome.

“America has no better friend in the world than Australia.” That speech to Congress, reiterating the shared values and interests of both countries, won the applause it deserved.

Seated next to Bush at an International Democrats Union dinner, Howard basked in his new status as the new chairman of the union, which is growing in stature as a sounding board for revived right-center governments in Europe.

A one-on-one with Secretary of State Colin Powell proved to be a productive meeting of like-minded fighters in the war on terrorism. Howard reassured Powell on Australia’s multibillion dollar antiterrorist defense and on Australian troop commitments in Afghanistan. Powell assured Canberra would get advance advice on any attack on Iraq but asked for no prior commitment.

One message that fell on deaf ears, at least congressional ears, was criticism of the recent U.S. Farm Bill that legislates $190 billion in agricultural subsidies over 10 years. “It will damage Australia’s farmers,” he told Congress bluntly. Worst hit will be our key shipments of beef, sugar and cotton.

But much to the Australian farm lobby’s disgust, the Washington-savvy Howard pulled his punches on this one. He has bigger fish to fry — a comprehensive free trade agreement. Congress still has to agree, but Bush clearly gave a thumbs up for a deal that could boost Australia’s annual output by $4 billion.

The deal could stimulate trade across a range of sectors by removing tariffs from heavily protected industries such as automotive making. A bilateral deal could, however, be years away. Wary a U.S. voter backlash, Bush must wait on Congress for authority to negotiate with Canberra under a Trade Promotion Authority process. “I urge Congress to give me trade promotion authority so we can have fruitful discussions with our friend,” Howard got the satisfaction of hearing his friend say.

Not everyone back home is as enthralled as one reporter in the national daily, The Australian, who sums up: “No Australian PM has ever had the extent of influence on U.S. policy in Asia that we should rightly aspire to. Washington recognizes Howard as a very good friend indeed.”

Indeed, a critic in the same paper, wrote: “Howard’s reward in Washington was a bauble. He has become the great manipulator of Australian politics. Labor should find the guts to inspire Australians to something better than fear and dependency.”

Richard Butler, the critic, is a former Australian ambassador to the United Nations and head of the U.N. Special Commission on Iraqi Disarmament.

Calmer counting of the real gains in Washington will have to await the outcome of latest outbursts over the looming deadline for Canberra to ratify support for the international criminal court. Unless Australia ratifies the Statute of Rome treaty by July 1, it will not be able to sit in the first assembly for the court in September to nominate judges.

As U.S. Deputy National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley put it to Howard, the U.S. is concerned the court could take action against American peacekeepers or antiterrorist strikes overseas. Long a court advocate, Howard then seemed to backtrack: “I fully understood the argument he was putting. It was a very powerful argument.”

Back home, he is finding the same concern Americans feel has a growing vocal, support here for Australian forces abroad. But the court advocates within the Howard Cabinet are coming out just as loudly.

Deputy Prime Minister and coalition partner John Anderson expressed concern about the court’s potential impact on Australian sovereignty. But longtime supporter, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, blamed hectoring “from some U.N. agencies” for causing his Cabinet colleagues to question Australia’s engagement with international causes.

Into the row steps Malcolm Fraser, former prime minister and the country’s would-be elder statesman. A failure by Australia to ratify the statue, he opines, would send a negative message to European countries already disappointed at its decision not to ratify the Kyoto protocol on climate change.

“They would think we’re doing it because America is doing it, as happened in relation to Kyoto,” said Fraser.

That claim coming from his fellow conservative and former leader — Fraser was prime minister when Howard was making his slow ascent to the top — is no welcome-home for the man who must now choose between his once-avowed stance on the international court and his apparent Washington-influenced one.

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