Australia's army chief resisted public pressure Wednesday to drop charges against three former commandos in the deaths last year of six Afghans, as cracks began to appear in Australia's support for its military deployment in Afghanistan.
Lt. Gen. Ken Gillespie issued a statement after more than 20,000 people signed an online petition calling for charges to be withdrawn over a February 2009 raid on a compound in southern Uruzgan province in which six Afghans, including five children, were killed.
"The army has a responsibility to protect the integrity and professionalism and to respect the legal obligations inherent in our service," Gillespie said. "The army is simply not above the law."
The controversy comes as opinion polls show public support for Australia's involvement in the Afghanistan campaign is sliding.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard succumbed to pressure from the anti-war Greens party by agreeing to allow next week the first parliamentary debate on Australia's military commitment of 1,550 troops to the conflict.
Gillard relies on support from the Greens to rule since August elections gave no party a parliamentary majority.
Opposition leader Tony Abbott's conservative coalition staunchly backs the government's plans to keep Australian troops in Afghanistan until an Afghan National Army battalion is capable of maintaining security in Uruzgan. That training mission is expected to take between two and four years.
The Defense Department announced last month that the trio face multiple charges including manslaughter, dangerous conduct and failing to comply with a lawful general order. Two of the soldiers have blamed an insurgent for the deaths and said they will defend themselves in military courts-martial. The third soldier has made no public comment.