Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - Australian Prime Minister John Howard has taken issue with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan over remarks about the deaths of Iraqi civilians during the war to topple Saddam Hussein.
Speaking after at least 14 people were killed in explosions at a market area of Baghdad, Annan called Thursday for all sides in the Iraqi conflict to respect international humanitarian laws and protect civilians.
Howard, speaking in parliament, rejected any attempt to compare the actions of the Iraqi regime and the forces of the U.S.-led coalition.
Addressing his words directly to Annan, he drew a distinction between the behavior of the Iraqi government and the policies of the U.S., British and Australian governments.
"Any suggestion of moral equivalence between the coalition and the Iraqis on this occasion, I totally reject," he said.
What happened in the Al Sha'ab market area in the north of the capital late Wednesday remains unclear.
Baghdad and Iraqi witnesses to the explosion blamed it on the allied missiles or bombs.
U.S. officers said it might have been an Iraqi missile that landed in the market area, either accidentally or intentionally.
"I think it's entirely possible that this may in fact have been an Iraqi missile that went up and came down, or given the behavior of the regime lately, it may have been a deliberate attack," Brig.-Gen. Vincent Brooks said at a briefing in Qatar.
He said an answer to the puzzle might only be known once the coalition forces had entered Baghdad.
While the Australian leader aimed his remarks at the U.N. chief, he also addressed critics closer to home.
One of the most vocal, Green Party leader and Senator Bob Brown, earlier charged that Howard was indirectly responsible for the deaths of Iraqi civilians.
"All the leaders involved in this attack on Iraq do carry the weight of the blood that's been spilled," Brown said.
Howard responded by saying Saddam Hussein's failure to disarm and his placing of military assets and air defense facilities near civilian areas were to blame.
Concern for the safety of civilians, he said, was very much in the minds of the coalition governments but was "of course...not in the mind of the government of Iraq."
Meanwhile, Howard has participated in a three-way telephone conference with President Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair, discussing the progress of the war and post-war reconstruction plans.
Howard earlier turned down an invitation to attend a war summit in the U.S., saying he felt he should remain at home while Australian combat forces were in action in the Gulf. His foreign minister, Alexander Downer, is instead going to hold talks with Secretary of State Colin Powell and others.
In recent months, Howard has fought an uphill battle to win public support for his conservative government's decision to back the U.S. campaign politically and militarily.
Opinion polls have finally shown that, for the first time since the Iraq issue took center stage late last year, more Australians approve of military action to disarm Saddam than oppose it.
According to pollsters, a shift has been detected especially in the attitudes of younger people and women.
Thousands of messages of good will and support for Australian forces in action have been pouring into the Department of Defense headquarters in Canberra by e-mail and fax, according to spokesman Brig. Mike Hannan.
Anti-war demonstrations continue, however, and this week turned violent in Sydney when a small group among protest marchers smashed signs and threw objects at police, who arrested more than a dozen.
In an echo of the situation in Britain - America's main ally in the war - analysts in Australia maintain that the prime minister's popularity will rise considerably if the war is seen as short, successful and with casualties kept to a minimum.
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