The cartoonists are having a field day in Australia. Barely a day goes by without a newspaper publishing a sketch of Prime Minister John Howard falling obediently into step with Washington's plans for a war against Iraq. With his balding pate, bushy eyebrows and jutting lower lip, the prime minister has always been a cartoonist's delight. Now his diminutive stature and bellicose stance have given the scribblers more ammunition, as they portray Mr Howard as a stooge of the US and Britain, dressed in camouflage fatigues and scampering off to war behind George W. Bush and Tony Blair. But Australia's apparent commitment to war is no laughing matter. Australian men and women are on their way to what could, in a few weeks, be a war zone. Days after the announcement by Britain and the United States of a further build-up of troops, Mr Howard last week announced that 2,000 Australian military personnel are to be sent to the Persian Gulf in support. The first batch of 350 navy and air force personnel left Sydney aboard the troop ship HMS Kanimbla last Thursday. SAS forces were sent from their base in Perth in Western Australia on Friday. Mr Howard insists that no decision has been made on whether to commit the Australian contingent to any campaign to unseat Saddam Hussein from power. He is at pains to argue that the primary purpose of this 'forward deployment' is to keep up the pressure on the Iraqi president and make him co-operate fully with weapons inspectors. 'You go to the Persian Gulf as part of the existing multinational interception force,' Mr Howard told the soldiers and sailors as they prepared to leave. 'But it may be, given circumstances that are now unfolding in relation to Iraq and that country's response to certain UN resolutions, it may be that this vessel and the deployment here are involved in wider operations.' The possibility of such 'wider operations' is causing deep-seated divisions in Australia, on a scale not seen since the Vietnam War, when Australians joined the US in war. Speaking at the same farewell ceremony, the leader of the opposition Labor Party, Simon Crean, was blunt. 'I don't believe you should be going,' he said. The most recent polls suggest that more than 60 per cent of Australians oppose any involvement in an American-led campaign not backed by the UN. Only 6 per cent support a military strike without UN blessing. So why is Mr Howard flying in the face of such overwhelming dissent? A shrewd political operator, he is renowned for gauging public opinion and moulding his policies accordingly. Geoff Kitney, the political editor of the Sydney Morning Herald , believes Mr Howard's convictions stem in part from a genuine belief in the need to stop Saddam Hussein from acquiring weapons of mass destruction, and in part from wider geopolitical and personal considerations. 'Firstly, he regards the American alliance as fundamental to Australia's long-term security. He is very much in line with the Bush administration's right-wing view of the world. I think he does buy the argument about the threat posed by rogue regimes like Iraq,' Kitney said. 'But there's no doubt that he also feels comfortable, on a personal and philosophical level, with the Anglo-Saxon world - what has been called 'the new Nato' of the US, Britain and Canada. He strongly believes Australia is fundamentally a European nation, even though it is in Asia.' That view - and last week's deployment - could cause Australia problems with its neighbours, particularly Muslim nations like Malaysia and Indonesia. The leaders of both fear an upsurge in domestic unrest and terrorism in the wake of Australia's close alignment with the United States over the Iraqi crisis, according to the Australian Financial Review . Paul Dibb, head of the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University, believes there are 'pros and cons' to the Australian deployment. 'On the positive side it strengthens our image in the region, that we are America's closest ally in the Asia-Pacific. That acts as a warning in the region about the degree of American protection to us in defence terms. 'On the other hand Indonesia and Malaysia are going to be against such a war, and that may well strain our relations with them.' Mr Howard is adept at soothing - or ignoring - ruffled sensibilities in southeast Asia. The bigger challenge will be convincing a sceptical public, and a vocal opposition, that his decision this week was the right one.