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SYDNEY — Is Australia’s decision to send troops to guard Japanese reconstruction workers in Iraq reasonable? Not if you believe Australians who are still fighting World War II or are angry at our armed presence in Iraq.

A reasonable observer, on hearing the outcry against Prime Minister John Howard’s about-face — which will double Canberra’s troop commitment in southern Iraq — might be shocked. The hooha on talk-back radio is shrill indeed.

Lest we forget the past, one Rupert Murdoch-owned Sydney daily newspaper has contrasted the new togetherness with an old picture of gaunt, starved Australian prisoners of war in a Japanese Imperial Army hellhole during World War II.

Public acceptance of Howard’s cautious policy move, however, appears to be growing. Public opinion polls show a majority of Australians favor sending 450 troops to southern Iraq to guard Japanese engineers at Samawah and to train Iraqi troops.

Howard’s sudden decision upsets critics who say it’s bad enough that Australia is backing Washington in another Vietnam; now Howard has done an about-face soon after promising not to put more troops in danger.

Howard says the situation in postelection Iraq is getting better and that there is no “bottomless pit” of demand for foreign intervention. Moreover, he reckons, “the contribution we are going to make will ensure our major regional partner, Japan, stays in Iraq.”

Tokyo’s attitude — and the desire by Canberra to maintain close ties with Japanese decision-makers — is key to understanding the thinking behind this escalating controversy. The success of the Tokyo link, nurtured by successive conservative and Labor governments in Canberra, is seen by most people here to be worth some sacrifice.

A phone call from Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi tipped Howard’s decision to send more troops. The call came as Howard was preparing to fly to Auckland for trade talks with New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark. In a 20-minute conversation, Koizumi told Howard it would be extremely dangerous for his nationals reconstructing Iraqi roads, hospitals and schools without the protection of security forces.

Dutch forces that have provided security are due to complete a two-year mission and return home. While Howard was still in Auckland, British Prime Minister Tony Blair phoned him to back up the Koizumi call. The pressure proved irresistible.

For months, British and American military commanders had been pushing Canberra to help restrain the Iraqi insurgency. Separately, the British want help to fill a gap after the 1,400 Dutch troops leave. London pressured Australian Defense Chief General Peter Cosgrove for more troops. Foreign Minister Alexander Downer received a formal request from British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw. Still, Canberra delayed, fretting over a possible public backlash here.

Only after Koizumi’s and Blair’s phone calls did Howard reverse earlier assurances to Australian voters and OK a fresh troop deployment. Now training has begun to man and equip at least 40 more armored fighting vehicles for an army regiment preparing to leave the northern military post at Darwin within two months.

Public concern is mounting over possible casualties. So far only one Australian combatant has been killed in Iraq — a flyer serving with the British air force.

Unlike more frenzied critics, Labor leader Kim Beazley has moderated his opposition. “There are many people in this country who think John Howard should have leveled with them about these intentions during the recent election,” he said, warning of Australia being caught in a messy civil war.

Greens leader Bob Brown lamented a “huge mistake”: “The reason Britain and Japan aren’t sending more troops is because it would create an uproar in London and Tokyo.”

The new commitment will raise Australia’s troop presence in Iraq to 950. An additional 500 Australian military personnel are in the region, including crews of a frigate in the Persian Gulf, a surveillance aircraft and Hercules transports. Australia also has personnel attached to U.N. missions in Israel, Syria, Lebanon and in the Sinai. The largest Australian military commitment is working in tsunami-devastated Aceh, Indonesia.

Howard now must find an extra $300 million in his comfortable budget and double that in the upcoming budget. The new commitment will raise the total cost of Australia’s involvement in Iraq above $1 billion. That is in addition to $2 billion budgeted for election promises and $1 billion for a South Asian tsunami aid package.

The $4.5 billion budget surplus forecast in December looks increasingly threatened. With an eye locked on Washington and Wall Street, Canberra is keeping a close watch on what until recently was an extremely optimistic fiscal outlook.

For fourth-term Prime Minister Howard, the postelection honeymoon is over. Veteran Canberra correspondent Michelle Grattan opines: “People have a right to feel angry that, yet again, they have been treated with disdain. Voters deserve better, especially on such a major national issue.

By contrast, conservative commentator Greg Sheridan is pushing the importance of militarily supporting pacifist Japan, Australia’s largest trading partner: “Despite the scars of World War II, Canberra has been engaging in a slowly accelerating military relationship with Tokyo. This can only be good for us. The payoff in terms of Asian engagement is gold.”

Outspokenly pro-Washington and pro-Tokyo, Sheridan welcomes Australian cooperation that will “encourage Japan to take a bigger, more assertive role on the international stage.”

The executive director of the Australia Defense Association, Neil James, warns that the reason Canberra has not deployed combat forces in Iraq apart from guards for its embassy is that our army “lacks the equipment, numbers and logistic capacity to sustain a commitment in medium to high intensity warfare.” He adds that these deficiencies “reinforce the urgency to modernize and harden the army after decades of comparative neglect.”

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