Prime Minister John Howard and Foreign Minister Alexander Downer both stressed on Tuesday the importance of the alliance in the decision to commit 2000 Australian troops to the US-led conflict. 

Both before and after the war, Howard and his ministers repeatedly cited Iraq's weapons of mass destruction (WMD) as the principal justification for joining President George Bush's "coalition of the willing." 

But Howard said on Tuesday that in all his public addresses arguing the case for joining the US-led invasion, he had "placed very heavy reliance on the importance of the American alliance." 

'Significant element'

"I'm not saying that was number one," he told reporters. "But it seems to have been forgotten that it was a significant element and something I referred to in all the major addresses I made." 

Downer said if Australia had not joined the US-led invasion, it
would have weakened the alliance "very substantially" at a crucial time when the international community was engaged in a "war against terrorism". 

Their comments came 24 hours after a bipartisan parliamentary committee found that while the government was more moderate and measured than the US and British governments in portraying the case for war, it still exaggerated the threat posed by Iraq's weapons programme. 

The committee said the government had relied on flawed US and British intelligence in overstating the threat to justify military action. 

The issue of WMD's

"I'm not saying that was number one. But it seems to have been forgotten that it was a significant element and something I referred to in all the major addresses I made." 

John Howard,
Australian PM

Its report cleared the government of pressuring intelligence agencies to boost their assessments of Iraq's capabilities, but said some assessments might have been changed unconsciously to reflect policy concerns. 

The government case was that Iraq "possessed WMD in large quantities and posed a grave and unacceptable threat to the region and the world," particularly because of the danger of the weapons being given to terrorists, the committee said. 

"This is not the picture that emerges from an examination of all the assessments provided to the committee by Australia's two analytical agencies," it added. 

The government has accepted the committee's recommendation that it set up an independent inquiry into the performance of the intelligence agencies. 

Opposition

Downer (R) said not joining the war 
 would have weakened the alliance

Howard rejected opposition accusations of lying by omitting or selecting intelligence to suit its case, saying it was up to the
government and not the intelligence agencies to make a political judgment on what action to take, and he had no apologies for making it. 

Downer said if it had not joined the US-led invasion and ditched the alliance, Australia would have been left "very vulnerable and very open" at a crucial time. 

"There is no question that was an issue and to have walked away from the Americans on an issue where we thought they were right anyway would have been a curious thing to do and would have weakened our alliance," he said.