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Australians to Choose Between Strong Supporter and Critic of Iraq War - 2004-08-29

Australian Prime Minister John Howard has called long-anticipated national elections for October 9. As in Spain earlier this year, he faces an opposition that has vowed to withdraw its troops from the American-led coalition in Iraq.

John Howard announced the election date Sunday after the traditional visit to the Governor-General, Michael Jeffery, Queen Elizabeth's representative in Australia.

In a speech in the national capital, Canberra, Mr. Howard, one of America's staunchest allies in the War on Terror, said this election would be about trust.

"Who do you trust to keep the economy strong and protect family living standards? Who do you trust to lead the fight on Australia's behalf against international terrorism?" he asked.

The six-week campaign is expected to focus on the economy and national security, but Australia's presence in Iraq will also be a crucial issue.

The leader of the opposition Labor Party, Mark Latham, has said he will pull Australia's 850 troops out of Iraq if he becomes Prime Minister, although he has since said he would leave some personnel in place.

After Spain's Socialists kicked out the incumbent government last March, they promptly kept an election promise and withdrew Spain's military contingent from Iraq.

Mr. Latham's differences with Washington seem to be personal as well as political. He has called President Bush "the most incompetent and dangerous president in living memory."

His comments and policies have raised questions about a Labor government's foreign credentials, and its ability to maintain the strong U.S.-Australian alliance.

But one independent election analyst, Antony Green, says it is unlikely a Latham victory would do serious damage to the alliance.

"It's clear that the current Howard government and the prime minister himself, has a close personal relationship with President Bush, but the ANZUS alliance has been around for 50 years and is built on more than just the personal relationships of the two current incumbents," said Mr. Green.

After eight and a half years in office, Mr. Howard's government is narrowly trailing Labor in the opinion polls.

Forty-three-year-old Mr. Latham says Australia needs a new generation of national leadership, and has sought to portray Mr. Howard, at 65, as too old for the job.

Mr. Howard in turn will be seeking to highlight Mr. Latham's relative inexperience and his alleged anti-Americanism, illustrated, Mr. Howard contends, by his criticism of Australia's role in Iraq.