Australian Prime Minister John Howard has returned home from secret visits to Iraq and Afghanistan. The conservative leader has pledged continued support for U.S.-led campaigns in both countries. Despite much opposition in Australia to the Iraq mission, Mr. Howard appears to hope that national security will prove to be a vote winner in an election due later this year. From Sydney, Phil Mercer reports.
John Howard has returned to Australia with a real fight on his hands. He is lagging well behind in the opinion polls as he faces an election later this year. The opposition Labor party has been rejuvenated under new leader Kevin Rudd, who is finding support from voters tired of 10 years under Mr. Howard.
A victory for Labor would have a profound effect on Australia's policy in the Middle East. Labor has promised to bring home the 15-hundred Australian troops deployed in and around Iraq, although it supports the reconstruction mission in Afghanistan.
Prime Minister Howard intends to use his visits to Iraq and Afghanistan over the past few days to reinforce his national security credentials. This week, he is expected to deliver a speech explaining why Australian troops must stay in Iraq.
During his brief visit to Baghdad, Mr. Howard met with his Iraqi counterpart, Nouri al-Maliki, who asked Australia to keep its forces in Iraq until extremists no longer threaten the country.
In response, Mr. Howard said it was for the good of the entire region that Australian troops remain.
"We in Australia believe that denying the terrorists victory in Iraq is very important not only to Iraq but also to this region and also the world-wide resistance to terrorism," Mr. Howard says.
The conservative leader has always said that Australia's deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan would help make the world more secure. Critics say they have just made Australia more of a target for extremists.
There is much opposition here to the Iraq mission. Opinion polls have repeatedly shown that many Australians believe their country has nothing to gain from fighting in such a faraway and troubled land.
Anti-war protesters in Australia are planning small demonstrations to mark this week's fourth anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, as part of its war on terrorism.