SYDNEY, Australia – The Australian government will meet early this week to decide whether to commit its forces to a potential U.S.-led war with Iraq, Prime Minister John Howard said Monday.
Australia has 2,000 military personnel in the Middle East preparing for war with Iraq but has not yet formally given them the go-ahead to join any strikes on Baghdad.
Howard, one of President Bush's staunchest allies, told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio that a Cabinet meeting possibly could be held early this week.
"It depends on events as they unfold," he said.
In a television interview earlier Monday, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said he expects Bush to approve war this week even without U.N. Security Council backing.
"In the end, it's more likely than not that President Bush would then issue Iraq with an ultimatum, and give a couple of days or a bit more than that for the ultimatum," Downer told Australian television's Channel Nine.
Downer's stark assessment followed Bush's summit with key allies on the Atlantic islands of the Azores, after which he warned Monday was a "moment of truth" for Iraq.
Downer said he had little hope the Security Council would agree on a new resolution. There is widespread opposition in Australia to any military move to disarm Saddam Hussein without a resolution explicitly mandating the use of force.
The foreign ministry has warned Australians in Iraq to leave immediately.