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Bush Heckled in Australia as He Defends Iraq War Thu October 23, 2003 07:31 AM ET By Belinda Goldsmith
CANBERRA (Reuters) - Heckled inside and outside Australia's parliament, President Bush on Thursday defended the invasion of Iraq during a symbolic visit to thank Australia for its staunch support in the war on terror.
Bush, wrapping up a six-nation Asian tour focused on security and trade, said the allies who had fought alongside each other in two world wars and Vietnam had a "special responsibility throughout the Pacific" to help keep peace.
"In the war on terror, once again, we are at each other's side," Bush said, recalling the nightclub bombings in Bali last October that killed 202 people, including 88 Australians.
He told a special joint sitting of parliament in Canberra the war in Iraq was justified, but "with decisive victories behind us, we still have decisive days ahead."
"America, Australia and other nations acted in Iraq to remove a grave and gathering danger, instead of wishing and waiting while tragedy drew closer," Bush said.
"Who can possibly think that the world would be better off with Saddam Hussein still in power?"
The U.S. president was on a whirlwind visit to Australia to reward conservative Prime Minister John Howard, whom he dubbed "a man of steel" for sending troops to Iraq and Afghanistan, despite public protests.
His 20-hour visit triggered a massive security operation in the usually sleepy capital with armed air force jets escorting Bush into Canberra late Wednesday night and patrolling the city's skies until he flew out on Thursday evening.
Authorities took the unprecedented step of barring the public from the parliament where Bush spoke on Thursday, backing a special security role for Australia in the Asia-Pacific region that has raised concerns among Asian neighbors.
"Security in the Asia-Pacific region will always depend on the willingness of nations to take responsibility for their neighborhood, as Australia is doing," Bush told parliament.
Australia has recently sent a peacekeeping force to the Solomon Islands to restore law and order.
But his tagging of Australia as a regional "sheriff" and staunch defense of the Iraq war angered left-leaning Green politicians whose heckling twice stopped the president's speech.
"We are not a sheriff," shouted Greens leader Bob Brown who ignored an order to leave the house.
The heckling did not rattle Bush, who is on his first trip to Australia. The last U.S. president to visit Australia was Bill Clinton in 1996 -- who was also heckled by Brown.
"I love free speech," quipped Bush, to cheers from the house, having been warned he could face politicians' protests.
But following Bush's speech, the parliament voted to suspend Brown and his Greens colleague Kerry Nettle from parliament for 24 hours, which will bar them on Friday when Chinese President Hu Jintao addresses parliament during a three-day state visit.
The 18-year-old son of Mamdouh Habib, one of two Australians held at a U.S. military prison in Cuba for two years without charge after the Afghan invasion, was dragged out, arms pinned behind his back, after yelling: "Hey Bush, what about my Dad?"
Howard did raise the issue of Habib and fellow detainee David Hicks with Bush and was assured they were being properly cared for and would be dealt with according to U.S. rules and regulations.
"YANKEE GO HOME"
Five protesters were arrested in scuffles with police outside the hilltop parliament as a crowd of up to 2,000 chanted anti-U.S. slogans and waved banners reading: "Yankee Go Home."
But the protest was largely peaceful with the crowd failing to reach an expected 5,000 and well short of the 200,000 that joined an anti-war protest in the city of Sydney in February.
"It was generally a very well-behaved protest with just a few scuffles," said Australian Federal Police spokesman Sandy Logan.
Australia was one of the first nations to commit troops to Iraq, sending 2,000 military personnel to the Gulf, and has been an active partner in the U.S.-led war on terror, sending troops to Afghanistan after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the U.S.
It has cranked up security nationwide since the Bali bombings with about 1,000 police and security specialists on duty in Canberra on Thursday to guard Bush and his 650-person entourage.
Before leaving Australia for Hawaii, and then home, Bush visited the Australian War Memorial to lay a wreath in memory of elite soldier Sergeant Andrew Russell, killed in Afghanistan when his patrol vehicle hit a land mine.
Howard's drive to tighten ties with the United States during his seven years in power has sparked some criticism within Asia but he said the relationship would only become tighter, with the allies aiming to seal a free trade accord this year.
Both leaders reaffirmed their commitment to finalize a deal by year-end, agreeing for Australian Trade Minister Mark Vaile and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick to meet next month to discuss possible trade-offs to fast-track an agreement.
"The significance of America to Australia will grow as the years go by, it will not diminish," Howard told the parliament. (Additional reporting by Michelle Nichols)
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