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Australia: Iraq in Material Breach

Prime Minister John Howard, a key U.S. ally, said Tuesday that Iraq had failed to fully cooperate with U.N. weapons inspectors and was in "material breach" of U.N. resolutions demanding its disarmament.

Australia is not currently on the Security Council, which would have to make the determination whether Iraq is in material breach of its resolutions -- a finding that could pave the way for war. But Howard's comments underlined his government's strong backing to Washington's hardline stance on Iraq.

Washington insists it does not need a new U.N. resolution to launch military action against Iraq and says it will lead a coalition of like-minded nations if it decides to go to war. Australia has joined the United States and Britain in a large military build-up in the Persian Gulf in preparation for possible war.

"Although Iraq may have cooperated in a process sense, in substance Iraq has not cooperated," Howard told Sydney radio station 2GB in reaction to the reports made Monday before the Security Council by chief U.N. inspectors Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei.

Baghdad was "in further material breach" of Security Council resolutions, Howard said.

Blix told the council in his address that Iraq has not shown "genuine acceptance" of or full cooperation with the U.N. inspections regime. ElBaradei, who heads U.N. nuclear inspections, said there was no evidence so far that Iraq was reviving its nuclear program and asked for a "few months" to complete the search.

Washington said there was no sign Baghdad would disarm voluntarily and said time was running out for it to avoid war. Other council members with veto powers, however, say inspectors must be given more time.

Howard said his government "believes that Iraq does have chemical and biological weapons and that is the view of the British and American governments."

Howard sent elite Australian commandos and a navy ship to the Gulf last week to prepare for war and has not ruled out joining a U.S.-led strike on Iraq even without the backing of the United Nations.

Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer described the Blix report as "very damning on the question of cooperation," but said he did not believe it was a trigger for immediate war.

"Obviously this does change the environment unfortunately in an extremely negative way," Downer told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio in an interview from Berlin.