Howard under fire after Jakarta blast

Australian Prime Minister John Howard, facing a general election on October 9, has been one of United States President George W Bush’s most reliable allies in the “war on terror”.

But the bombing of the Australian embassy in Jakarta, Indonesia, last Thursday by a radical Islamic group, and unconfirmed reports that two Australians are being held hostage in Iraq, potentially makes Howard’s loyalty to the US a political liability, as his political opponents accuse him of neglecting Australia’s security.

Howard was one of the leading members of Bush’s “Coalition of the Willing” that led the Iraq war. Australia committed 8 000 military personnel to the conflict, despite widespread public opposition to the war.

Howard, who has been prime minister since 1996, has described Australia as being the US’s “deputy sheriff” in the volatile Asia-Pacific region. On June 19 this year Howard made a number of Asian leaders nervous by committing Australia to participating in the Bush administration’s “son of star wars” missile defence programme.

The Jakarta bombing last Thursday — believed to be the responsibility of the Islamic terrorist group Jema’ah Islamiyah, which has links to al-Qaeda — is the second attack on Australia since 9/11. On October 12 2002 a popular nightspot on the Indonesian tourist island Bali was bombed and more than 200 people, including 88 Australians, were killed. Jema’ah Islamiyah claimed responsibility.

Indonesia, a moderate Islamic nation of 100-million people, is Australia’s closest neighbour. It is easier for terrorist groups to attack Australian targets in Bali or Australians in Indonesia, than it is for the groups to enter Australia.

The Jakarta and Bali bombings have sparked an election debate about whether Howard’s unwavering commitment to the Bush administration has made Australia more vulnerable to terrorist attacks. Howard’s political opponents believe that the resources spent on Australia’s participation in the Iraq conflict should have been diverted to strategies to provide greater protection in the Asia-Pacific region.

His opponent, Mark Latham, the leader of the Australian Labour Party (ALP), has wasted no time in attacking Howard in the aftermath of last week’s bombing.

In a national TV debate with Howard last Sunday Latham said: “I’ve no doubt that if all of the time, the effort, the money, the resources that went into Iraq had been used to break up al-Qaeda, the world today would be a safer place. Australia would be safer and more secure.”

Latham said the Howard government’s commitment in Iraq has made “Australia a larger target, it’s made us less safe in the war against terror”.

Howard has defended his stance on Iraq by saying: “The day this country allows terrorists to determine things like that [Australia’s involvement in Iraq] is the day we lose control of our future.”

The prime minister pointed to the millions of dollars in time and resources that Australian anti-terror authorities and their Indonesian counterparts have spent combating terrorism since the Bali bombing, and to heightened airport security and increased defence spending within Australia itself. His government has spent an extra Aus$3,2-billion on anti-terrorism measures since 9/11.

With eerie precision, 24 hours after the leaders’ debate, reports emerged from Iraq that two Australians were being held hostage by a group calling itself the Horror Brigades of the Islamic Secret Army. The group is demanding that Australia withdraw its remaining 2 000 military personnel from Iraq immediately.

The Australian embassy in Baghdad has now accounted for all 225 civilian Australians in Iraq and doubt has been cast on the claims made by the terrorist group.

It is hard to fathom which party is benefiting from the unstable international environment in which the election campaigning is taking place.

Polls have both Howard’s Liberal/ National Party Coalition and Latham’s ALP running neck and neck at 50%, but there is still a large number of undecided voters working out where to cast their vote on October 9.

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