Australian Prime Minister Backs Surveillance in Mosques

Canberra, Australia - Prime Minister John Howard angered some Australian Muslims on Wednesday by saying he supported spies monitoring the nation's mosques.

He was speaking just hours before bidding farewell to a unit of Australian elite troops heading for combat duty in Afghanistan in a deployment sure to further upset many Muslims here.

A day after holding a summit with 13 moderate Australian Islamic leaders, Howard said the government had a right to know if parts of the Islamic community supported or preached violence, and he favoured infiltration of mosques and schools if needed.

Tuesday's summit agreed to examine the training of imams and what is taught in Islamic schools as part of a crackdown on the propagation of extremist views in the name of Islam.

But Education Minister Brendan Nelson said on Wednesday that Muslims who did not support Australian values should "clear out" and leave the country.

Howard said that while the government had no wish to interfere with the freedom and practice of religion, he supported sending people into mosques and Islamic schools to make sure nobody was promoting support for violence or extremism.

"We have a right to know whether there is, within any section of the Islamic community, a preaching of the virtues of terrorism, whether any comfort or harbour is given to terrorism within that community," Howard told Australian radio.

Muslim Civil Rights Advocacy Network convenor Waleed Kadous said Howard should be consulting more with the Muslim community.

"Such hardline talk only isolates some parts of the Muslim community even further and makes it harder for cooperation between the Muslim community and the government," Kadous told Australian Associated Press.

Australia has about 280,000 Muslims, who live mainly in the largest cities of Sydney and Melbourne.

A staunch U.S. ally, Australia is reviewing its anti-terror laws and is considering moves to deport Muslim clerics who support violence as part of their religion.

Howard flew on Wednesday to the western city of Perth to bid farewell to 190 special forces troops who are returning to Afghanistan for the first time since late 2002 to join the hunt for Taliban and al Qaeda insurgents.

Defence Minister Robert Hill said they would have a similar role to their 2001 deployment, carrying out combat patrols in remote regions, reconnaissance and surveillance operations.

A group of 51 Australian Muslim organisations said this week that Australia's deployment of forces to Afghanistan and the continued presence of Australian forces in Iraq were key sources of tension within Australia's Islamic community.

Howard sent 1,550 troops to Afghanistan in 2001 to join the U.S.-led military campaign that toppled Afghanistan's Taliban regime for harbouring al Qaeda, the militant group blamed for the Sept. 11, 2001, airliner attacks on the United States.

Australian special forces troops were involved in some of the earliest and fiercest fighting in Afghanistan, hunting down al Qaeda and Taliban supporters, but Canberra withdrew its forces in late 2002.

An analysis of recent opinion polls published in June found that 58 percent of Australians supported contributing troops to the U.S.-led war on terrorism, with 20 percent opposed.