RECORD-SETTING BRUSHFIRES canceled the annual fireworks display over Sydney Harbor for Australia Day on Jan. 26, a patriotic summer holiday marking the landing of the British here in 1788. Parades of tall ships, flag flying, street parties, and concerts rolled on unaffected by the veil of smoke that blanketed the country's largest city. So too did anti-war demonstrations. Peace banners elbowed the mosh pits at outdoor concerts. "Leave Iraqi children alone," read one of the more tame sets of hand-lettered signs tied to national flags.
When President George W. Bush steadies his finger over the war trigger, he is likely to have but two hardcore allies: Australia's Prime Minister John Howard and Britain's Tony Blair. Mr. Howard, while receiving far less attention than Mr. Blair, shows equal willingness to go the distance-despite a tide of voter protest. On the eve of Mr. Bush's State of the Union message, Australia's foreign minister, Alexander Downer, told reporters that Mr. Howard was prepared to join a military strike on Iraq without the United Nations. Mr. Howard had previously said he supported U.S. action against Iraq outside a UN umbrella and agreed with the Bush doctrine to level preemptive strikes against sponsors of terror.
For anti-war activists, these are all fighting words, and the streets across Australia are full of dissent. Anti-war sentiment spiked in the days leading up to the national holiday. Demonstrations erupted in cities nationwide-led by not only concert-going peaceniks but also labor unionists, public-school teachers, and church leaders.
Over 60 percent of Australians oppose sending their soldiers to war in the Gulf unless they are part of a UN-sanctioned force. Thirty percent say they oppose war against Iraq under any circumstance. Like Mr. Blair, Mr. Howard, a conservative (and, confusingly, the head of Australia's ruling Liberal Party), could pay for his pro-war stand with his political life. He seems determined to forge ahead despite the odds against him.
News of daily troop deployments-numbering 1,600 at last count-now fill headlines. Mr. Howard personally sent Australia's first fighters to the Persian Gulf, including hundreds of naval forces and a 150-member Special Forces unit. If war begins, F-18 pilots and ground forces from Australia are expected to fight alongside the United States as well.
At Sydney Harbor a wall of protesters heckled the prime minister as he bid farewell to sailors aboard the HMAS Kanimbla. A landing and support ship, the Kanimbla departed for the Persian Gulf just before Australia Day. Newspapers on Jan. 24 carried top-to-bottom photos of tearful departures and this outsized headline: "A Nation Divided." Inside, readers wrote letters to the editor denouncing Mr. Howard or vowing to renounce citizenship over Iraq.
Australians are careful to note, as did one Sydney protester who would not give her name, "We are a country the same size as the United States but with only about the population of Los Angeles. Sending these soldiers is a big deal for us."
That is a reflexive reaction to war of any stripe, in part. But Australians have been out front in sending soldiers to other fronts. They were among the very first to join U.S. ground forces in Afghanistan. They provided the bulk of the army needed to keep peace in East Timor ahead of a UN peacekeeping operation.
What seems to most rankle Mr. Howard's opposition this time is the appearance that he is simply falling in line with Washington. Australians are known to assert their contra-Americanism. "We play cricket without gloves and football without pads" is one favorite jab. So opposition Labor Party Leader Simon Crean is wooing voters by vowing not to follow the American war plan. He declared that he would bring Australian soldiers home from the Middle East, rather than send more. Mr. Howard, he said, "should listen to the Australian people, not George Bush."
Mr. Howard has his own reasons to believe that the war on terror is also Australia's war. He was in Washington at the time of terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, where he got a close encounter with the fear and danger. The largest terrorist incident since then-the bombing of a nightclub and bar in Bali last October-also landed on his doorstep. That bombing killed 88 Australians, and many injured by the blast were airlifted to Western Australian hospitals.
Australian frigates have for the last decade patrolled the Persian Gulf in support of a UN blockade of Iraqi shipments. And Australian Special Forces joined U.S. troops in Afghanistan just two weeks into the war there.
The Australia-U.S. tie has long been binding. Australian forces have served alongside U.S. soldiers in conflicts from North Africa under Gen. Patton to Vietnam. Unlike European allies in NATO, Australia has taken the lead to police conflict in its Pacific neighborhood, most recently in East Timor. Unlike Japan, it has no constitutional constraints on deployment of forces abroad. More recently, an Australia-U.S. military alliance has been strengthened not as a result of the war on terrorism, but because of security concerns within the region: the nuclear threat from North Korea and tensions with China over the downing of a U.S. spy plane two years ago.
If most Americans are unaware of the alliance, the Bush administration is attentive. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage visited Mr. Howard in December to discuss Iraq. With deployments underway from ports on the Pacific and Indian coasts, Mr. Bush put in a 35-minute call to Mr. Howard on Jan. 23. Also, the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln docked in Freemantle for an extended port call.
Australians are attentive as well-perhaps to the chagrin of Prime Minister Howard.