Cheney visits an Australia roiled by Guantánamo, Iraq

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Dick Cheney, perhaps the most powerful vice president in United States history, arrives in Sydney Thursday for a four-day visit.

Australian Army Black Hawk helicopters have been clattering over the city as part of counterterrorism exercises, as local police described Mr. Cheney as a "high risk" dignitary.

He is the most senior American visitor to Australia since President Bush addressed the joint houses of Parliament in Canberra in 2003.

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But despite Australia's status as a steadfast US ally and broad public support for the country's troop deployment in Afghanistan, Cheney will encounter public anger over Australia's participation in the Iraq war and growing disquiet over the fate of the country's lone Guantánamo Bay detainee, David Hicks.

Cheney will be greeted Thursday by a big rally outside Sydney's Town Hall, organized by the Stop the War Coalition.

A Newspoll survey this week found 68 percent of respondents now believe it was not worth sending Australian troops to Iraq, and only 30 percent agreed with the government's view that they should remain "as long as necessary." More than a quarter of people interviewed wanted the soldiers brought home immediately.

Cheney's visit comes at an awkward time for Prime Minister John Howard, who has been in power for more than a decade but this week slumped to his lowest opinion-poll rating in six years.

Cozying up to the US is dangerous at a time when the Australian public is recoiling from the situation in Iraq, even though it may support the broader objectives of the war on terror.

Mr. Howard has so far ruled out reducing Australia's 1,450-strong force in and around Iraq.

But he may find that stance more difficult after British Prime Minister Tony Blair's announcement Thursday that he will start withdrawing British forces from the war-ravaged country.

The Australian public is also becoming increasingly concerned over the US administration's treatment of Guantánamo detainee Mr. Hicks.

A drifter and a former kangaroo hunter from the parched state of South Australia, Hicks was captured in Afghanistan with the Taliban in 2001 and handed over to US soldiers.

He has spent the past five years detained in Guantánamo Bay without any charges being filed against him.

It's not that Australians necessarily think he's innocent – clearly he was not in Afghanistan as a backpacker.

But they feel strongly that he deserves to face his accusers and be given a fair trial.

"For Howard, there are risks to this visit because the Bush administration is unpopular in Australia," says Michael Fullilove, director of the global-issues program at the Lowy Institute, a Sydney-based think tank. "The Hicks case contributes to the sense that all is not right. Here we are, a reliable ally, and he's been in custody for five years without a trial, unlike the British prisoners, who were sent home."

Australia has been one of America's most steadfast allies for more than 60 years. Australian "diggers" fought alongside GIs in World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and the first Gulf War.

While Australia's involvement in Iraq may be deeply unpopular, that is not to say that the country has been swept by anti-Americanism.

There is broad public support for Canberra's decision to deploy troops to Afghanistan, and residual sympathy for the horror Americans experienced on 9/11.

"I think Australians take a relatively sophisticated view of the relationship – they separate their feelings for the current incumbent with their attitude toward the alliance in general," says Mr. Fullilove.

Last week, the government agreed to host a ground station for a US military satellite communications system on a remote stretch of desert coastline in Western Australia. There was barely a murmur of dissent, and the base is likely to be built without controversy.

"Even if Australians dislike the present administration, they support the alliance," says Gerard Henderson, executive director of the conservative Sydney Institute think tank.

With its small population, isolation, vast coastline, and position on the edge of Asia, Australia has always looked to a more powerful guarantor. First it was the British Empire and then, after 1942 and the fall of Singapore, the US.

But tough questions are now being asked about the government's apparently unconditional support for the Bush administration.

"We think it is time for Howard to say enough's enough to the man who more than anyone is responsible for creating the Iraq disaster on the basis of distorted intelligence and inflated dreams of remaking the Middle East," declared The Sydney Morning Herald in an editorial Thursday.

There will be a protest Friday outside the five-star Shangri-La Hotel, where Cheney will give a speech on US-Australian relations.

On Saturday he will hold talks with Howard on the Bush administration's decision to send a new "surge" of 21,000 combat troops to Iraq.

Cheney will also meet the new leader of the opposition Labor party, Kevin Rudd, who has pledged to withdraw Australia's 550 combat forces from Iraq should he win the next federal election, expected later this year. Another 900 sailors, airmen, and diplomatic protection detachments would remain in the region.

With criticism of the Iraq war mounting, Cheney may be grateful to get out of Washington for a few days. He arrived in Japan Tuesday for a quick visit to thank the country for contributing troops to both Iraq and Afghanistan, and was due to stop by the US Pacific Island of Guam on his way to Australia.

But his reception in Australia may provide scant comfort. "Cheney is unpopular here. He's perceived as a rather dour and private man," says Mr. Henderson. "And of course he's associated with Bush, who's never been popular here .... I doubt whether John Howard phoned up Cheney and said 'Now is a great time for you to visit.' But Howard is tribal – he stands by his mates."

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