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Senate censure for Howard over Iraq

By Grant Holloway, CNN Sydney

Prime Minister Howard has come under fire for committing troops to the military build-up in the Middle East

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CANBERRA, Australia (CNN) -- Australia's upper house of Parliament, the Senate, has passed a motion of "no confidence" in the Prime Minister John Howard over his handling of the situation in Iraq.

While the conservative Howard government holds a solid majority in the House of Representatives, the prime minister's Liberal-National coalition does not have outright control of the Senate.

The no confidence motion was passed 34 to 31 after the main opposition Labor party was joined by Greens, Democrats and independent senators to defeat the government.

The vote -- which also censured the government for sending troops to the Middle East without backing from the United Nations -- will have little, if any effect, on Prime Minister Howard.

Professor of Politics at the Australian National University, John Warhurst, told CNN Wednesday that the implications of the vote were not very serious for the government.

"The Australian system of government relies on the confidence of the lower house, so in formal terms this vote will have no direct impact," he said.

However, Professor Warhurst said such a vote was not undertaken frivolously by the Senate and it would have the effect of increasing political and social debate and media attention on the issue.

Australia's decision to send troops to the Persian Gulf to join the U.S. and U.K. military build-up in the region continues to create headaches for the government Wednesday.

Opposition attacks have focused on a leaked document in which Foreign Minister Alexander Downer told New Zealand's High Commissioner Kate Lackey that Australia would not be in a position to withdraw its troops from the Gulf if U.N. processes over Iraq broke down.

Downer has confirmed the veracity of the document but says his comments relate to the multinational group currently enforcing trade sanctions against Iraq, not last month's deployment of troops.

This interpretation was backed up by Lackey, who told Sydney radio that Downer had been speaking only about forces already involved in a multinational interception force.

But Greens leader Bob Brown told CNN Wednesday that this simply proved the point that the government was not being forthright with the Australian people over the extent of its commitment to military action in the Gulf.

He said that if it was impossible to withdraw the interception force troops, it would be doubly difficult to extricate the latest deployments.

Canberra has already committed 2,000 troops to the Middle East with around 450 personnel already joining the U.S. military build-up in the region.

Another 450 troops, as well as fighter jets and transport planes, will leave for the Middle East in the coming weeks.

Prime Minister Howard -- a staunch supporter of the U.S. position towards Iraq -- outlined his government's stance in an address to parliament Tuesday afternoon, prompting fierce debate on the issue.

Out of step

Alexander Downer admits that Australian troops cannot be pulled out of the Gulf

Opposition attacks have focussed on the troop deployment and Howard's refusal to rule out joining U.S. -led military action against Iraq without the support of the United Nations.

Howard said Australia would not make a final decision to commit to military conflict until the government was satisfied that "all achievable options for a peaceful resolution have been explored."

An opinion poll published in The Australian newspaper Tuesday showed more than three-quarters of those surveyed did not back action against Iraq with U.N. backing.

The Newspoll showed 57 percent approved of a war against Iraq if it had the support of the United Nations, but 76 percent did not support non U.N.-sanctioned actions.

The hardline Australian position has also made its Southeast Asian neighbors uneasy.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Hassan Wirayuda told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation on Monday that Canberra was out of step with the mood in the Southeast Asian region.

Next week Howard will visit the United States to discuss Iraq with U.S. President George W. Bush and U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, before heading to London for talks with British Prime Minister Tony Blair. He will also visit Jakarta as part of the trip.

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