US CAUGHT BETWEEN IRAQ AND A HARD PLACE

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(The Australian) - The U.S. has made clear it would like Australian SAS units now returning from Afghanistan to be ready to fight in Iraq should Saddam Hussein fail to give up his weapons of mass destruction.

US Deputy Secretary of Defence Paul Wolfowitz lauded yesterday the "incredible" performance of Australian Special Forces soldiers against the Taliban and al- Qa'ida, and said they would be useful to the US "almost anywhere, including Iraq".

"We're quite comfortable with the idea of letting them go home for a rest, because they might be needed again in the future," Mr Wolfowitz said, when asked whether the Perth-based soldiers would be useful in a war against the Iraqi President.

But Mr Wolfowitz admitted that such a war could have a long list of "awful" consequences, including further instability and terrorist strikes in Southeast Asia.

A Pentagon list had been drawn up of "19 or 20 awful things that could happen", he said, without elaborating.

On the other hand, terrorists did not need an excuse to act, and "Bali was not a response to anything", he said.

"I think we all understand it's a dangerous way, either way we go," he told Australian and Indonesian journalists at the Pentagon.

"If we do nothing about Iraq, it's going to be dangerous. If we have to use force against Iraq, it's going to be dangerous."

But the one thing that was often overstated was the risk of instability in Iraq should Mr. Hussein be removed.

"I don't see how it could be any worse than this, with that man there. I'd love to deal with the risk of an Iraq without Saddam Hussein," Mr. Wolfowitz said.

Removing Mr Hussein was also likely to improve the prospects for peace between Israel and the Palestinians, he said, while denying the US had focused too little on the Middle East, its biggest PR problem with the Arab world.

In the Wolfowitz view, the fewer troublemakers around, the better the chances for a settlement.

On the Bali bombing, he said the only good thing to emerge from the tragedy was Indonesia's new willingness to take seriously the problem of terrorism.

But he said Indonesia's problems were far from over, because terrorists wanted to try and make the religiously tolerant, fledgling democracy fail, and for Indonesia to become a hardline Islamic state.

"I know people say we're being simple-minded, but it is a struggle between good and evil," he said, voicing the hope Indonesia could be a model for the Muslim world.

"And I think the reason the terrorists went after Bali is, they see Indonesia's success would be an obstacle to their victory."

His comments come as the US canvasses more than 50 countries on their willingness to contribute to a military campaign to disarm MrHussein, should he fail to comply with a new UN Security Council resolution, which requires him to list his weapons by December 8.

Asked if the US really wanted the military support of countries such as Australia, or just the political benefit of a large coalition in its desire to remove Mr Hussein, Mr Wolfowitz praised the Australian forces.

"Not to suck up to you, but there aren't many countries like Australia," he said.

While the US would like 10 times the small number of troops likely to be offered -- Prime Minister John Howard has yet to make a formal commitment -- Australia brought "incredible military capability and professionalism", he said.

A mild-mannered hawk, Mr Wolfowitz has wanted to go after Iraq since September 11 and also said the US did want to operate as part of a coalition of countries.

"Even though there are some imperfections in that, it's more than worth the price from both the military and political point of view."

But, he said, there were few soldiers as valuable to the US in Iraq as the Australian SAS.

"Your special forces are as good as any in the world," he said. "Those sort of elite military units, they're very, very good and they're generally scarce."

On Indonesia's military, Mr Wolfowitz said the Pentagon would continue to push for a resumption of military ties that he said were vital to keeping Indonesia democratic.

The US Congress, however, is wary -- especially after accusations that Indonesian troops were involved in the killing of three people, including two Americans, in Papua three months ago.

"You can't scrap it, you've got to improve it," Mr Wolfowitz said of the Indonesian military.

The US policy for the past decade, of isolating the Indonesian armed forces because of their record of human rights abuses, had been counterproductive.

The best policy would be to train some of the troops in the US, so they might develop a more modern and democratic outlook

By Roy Eccleston in Washington

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