CANBERRA, Australia, March 26 (UPI) -- Australian Prime Minister John Howard criticized U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan for calling on all sides involved in the Iraq conflict to protect civilians.
"Please examine the relative behavior of the British and the Americans and the Iraqis," he told Parliament. "Any suggestion of moral equivalence between the coalition and the Iraqis on this occasion, I totally reject."
At the United Nations Wednesday, Annan expressed concern at the reported death of 15 Iraqis in a civilian neighborhood in a coalition bombing raid.
"I'm getting increasingly concerned by humanitarian casualties in this conflict," he said. "I would want to remind all belligerents that they should respect international humanitarian law and take all necessary steps to protect civilians. Besides, they are responsible for the welfare of the civilian population in the area."
The role of the United Nations in a post-Saddam Hussein Iraq was brought into question Wednesday when Washington indicated the United States did not favor a large role for the world body.
"We didn't take on this huge burden with our coalition partners not to be able to have a significant dominating control over how it unfolds in the future," U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell told a House of Representatives subcommittee. "We would not support ... essentially handing everything over to the U.N. for someone designated by the U.N. to suddenly become in charge of this whole operation."
Howard said the Australian government wanted the United Nations to appoint a special representative to help guide the Arab nation through the post-war period.
The position's role "could include liaison between U.N. agencies and the temporary coalition authority assisting in the development of an interim Iraqi consultative forum, and helping coordinate subsequent political arrangements in Iraq," he said.
But the opposition Labor Party leader, Simon Crean, said the United Nations, not the United States, should be responsible for rebuilding Iraq.
"We will not be part and will not support a U.S. protectorate to be the reconstruction effort in Iraq," he said.
Thursday's debate came as a new poll showed support for the war in Australia had increased from 46.5 percent to 50.5 percent. Sixty-one percent of Australians said, however, they believed the United Nations should have backed military action against Iraq.
Defense Minister Robert Hill said Thursday Australian troops will join their U.S. and British counterparts and fight on the front lines in Iraq.
He said some 33 soldiers are already on the front line. There are in addition to the Special Air Service troops already in the region.
"They are a part of these units as an exchange between countries, US and British forces and ours in the Australian Defense Force, and when they go into operations, ours tend to go with them," he said.
There are some 2,000 Australian engaged in the effort to topple Saddam Hussein and disarm him of suspected weapons of mass destruction.
At a news briefing, Defense spokesman Brig. Mike Hannan said Australian navy divers had located in the southern port of Umm Qasr a sunken Iraqi boat with mines. He said the discovery meant more dangerous work for the U.S.-led coalition.
"They'll be working with the United States and the United Kingdom colleagues in rendering that threat safe," he said. "This should allow the access of aid ships, including Australian aid, into the port beginning over the next two days."
He also said SAS forces operating inside Iraq had encountered Iraqi soldiers, who were disarmed.
In other developments, the opposition Democrats said they wanted laws changed so the country's involvement in any future war requires parliamentary approval. The Australian Broadcasting Corp. said the Democrats hoped to introduce a bill to that affect in the Senate Thursday.