Howard arrives for two-day visit amid looming Iraq war
Fabiola Desy Unidjaja
February 15, 2003
Australian Prime Minister John Howard arrived here on Friday on a two-day working visit amid uneasy bilateral relations concerning a possible attack on Iraq.
The visit will be dominated by talks about possible war on Iraq, investigation into the Bali bombing and other bilateral issues, possibly including the touchy subject of people-smuggling.
The Australian premier has said he will tell President Megawati Soekarnoputri that Australia's backing for a possible U.S.-led war on Iraq has nothing to do with Islam.
"Indonesia is the largest Islamic country in the world and I wanted the opportunity to say to the President that our concerns about Iraq were not, of course, based in any way on religion or Islam," he was quoted by AFP as telling the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) before his arrival.
"We have no quarrel with Islam or Islamic countries."
Howard is on his way home from talks in Washington and London about the Iraqi crisis.
Upon arrival, Howard made no statement and was greeted by Coordinating Minister for Political and Security Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono at Halim Perdanakusumah air base.
The prime minister is scheduled to meet President Megawati Soekarnoputri on Saturday.
He is also slated to meet with several Muslim leaders and the Bali bombing investigating team from the Australian Federal Police before flying back to Canberra on Saturday evening.
Australia is considered the strongest supporter after Britain of Washington's tough stance against Baghdad over its alleged weapons of mass destruction. Australia has already deployed some 2,000 military personnel to the Gulf.
Indonesia opposes any military action without United Nations blessing. A series of antiwar protests have been staged in the country.
Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Marty Natalegawa warned that Canberra's stance of supporting an attack on Iraq would likely provoke negative reactions from many Indonesian groups.
Already, an official with the country's largest Muslim organization, the Nahdlatul Ulama, said he had rejected an invitation to meet Howard.
"After considering Australian policy on the U.S. planned military aggression against Iraq, I decided to shun the discussion," Ahmad Bagdja was quoted by state Antara news agency as saying.
Meanwhile, Indonesian Minister of Justice and Human Rights Yusril Ihza Mahendra said that Indonesia rejected Australia's request for the extradition of alleged people-smuggler Egyptian Abu Quassey, saying "Australia too takes much and gives too little."
He said that Abu Quassey would be extradited to his home country.
Marty said, however, that differences over Iraq as well as thorny bilateral issues should not worsen bilateral relations.
"The two countries have survived many bad situations in our bilateral relations and we can certainly survive the current differences," he remarked.