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Australia will join Sinai force - if conditions met

Australia has its own version of the AWACS controversy. It is a dilemma shared by a number of other countries: whether to join the US-organized Sinai peace-keeping force.

The choice is hardly identical to President Reagan's embattled plan to sell early warning aircraft to Saudi Arabia. But, like AWACS, it has produced an Australian debate over the wisdom of further involvement in the volatile Mideast.

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Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser last week announced a conditional plan to send some 250 to 300 personnel, mainly Air Force troops, to join in a 2,500-man peace force on the Sinai. The force, which would include up to 1,000 US personnel, is to supervise Israel's full withdrawal from the Sinai, scheduled for next April under the 1979 Camp David accord.

So far only Fiji, Colombia, and Uruguay have committed troops. The 10-nation European Community is deciding whether to endorse participation by EC members France, Britain, Italy, and the Netherlands. The four have expressed interest in joining the force.

Like Australia, some other countries have been reluctant to sign on until they see how broadly based the force is likely to be.

In Australia, as elsewhere, a concern is that the force could be vulnerable because some Arab states oppose the accord and because the force is organized by the United States, rather than the United Nations.

The US and Egypt have argued that after the Sadat assassination it is necessary to move fast to keep the Camp David peace momentum going. If Australia held back, so the argument goes, others also might. This could give Israel a reason to slow Sinai withdrawal, and cause the accord to collapse.

For Mr. Fraser the issue raised questions over how far Australia should go to please its US ally and whether the Middle East is, in fact, an area of Australian strategic interest.

This reflects the longstanding Australian uncertainty over how much to support a bigger ally in faraway places in return for protection in time of war. Once the protector was Britain. Now it is the US.

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Unlike President Reagan, Mr. Fraser faces little likelihood of having to withdraw his offer. But the conditions attached to the announcement are aimed at widespread concerns that participation in the force could involve Australia in an unforeseen war beyond its control - or lead to Arab retaliation against growing trade with Australia.

(Monitor contributor David Solomon reports from Canberra that Fraser is taking a calculated gamble that he can provoke a major swing of opinion on the issue.

(The last opinion poll on Australian participation in the force, taken a month ago, showed that 72 percent were against participation and only 25 percent in favor.

(Other Australian conditions include a limited period of involvement. The Australian commander would be free to consult with the Australian government on orders from the Norwegian force commander that appear beyond the purpose of the force. No part of the force would be associated with the US Mideast Rapid Deployment Force.)

Fraser made participation conditional on participation by Canada and Britain - to reduce the likelihood that Arab opponents of the Camp David accord would single out Australia for trade retaliation.

William Hayden, leader of the opposition Labour Party, has strongly condemned the Fraser offer as abandoning ''the principle of Australia as an independent nation.''

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