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Iraq Becomes Key Topic in Australian Election Campaign - 2004-10-07

Australia's election campaign is in its final stages, with the country's role in Iraq again a major talking point. Australian Prime Minister John Howard says he does not need to apologize for joining last year's war, despite a new report concluding that Saddam Hussein did not have weapons of mass destruction at the time of the U.S.-led invasion. The opposition Labor Party has said it will withdraw Australian troops from Iraq if it wins Saturday's vote.

Australia's general election is being fought largely on domestic issues, such as the state of the economy, public health care and education.

These concerns are likely to determine the outcome of Saturday's vote. The two major parties - the ruling conservatives led by Prime Minister John Howard and the left of center Labor party - are neck-and-neck in the polls, although Mr. Howard is considered by seasoned observers to be the slight favorite.

Australia's role in Iraq is also an important part of the campaign, however. Canberra has around 850 troops in and around Iraq, and their future role is the subject of bitter political division.

The government, a key ally of the Bush administration and an enthusiastic participant in the war on terror, has insisted the troops will stay in Iraq 'until their job is done.' If Labor wins Saturday's election, chances are the troops will be withdrawn by the end of the year, a prospect described by President Bush as 'disastrous.'

In the final days of the campaign, Iraq is again making headlines here after a report by the chief U.S. weapons inspector. He said Wednesday that contrary to pre-war assessments, Iraq did not have stockpiles of biological and chemical weapons, and its nuclear program had decayed, well before last year's invasion.

Saddam Hussein's alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction was one of the primary reasons given for the war. Prime Minister Howard says he won't apologize for joining the war, because intelligence available at the time suggested that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein did pose a threat.

"I stand by the decision we took in relation to Iraq," said John Howard. "I have no regrets at all about the fact that Saddam Hussein is no longer leading Iraq, and it remains my very strong conviction that if the advice of my critics had been followed, Saddam Hussain with all that that implies would still be running Iraq."

The opposition Labor leader, Mark Latham, says the Prime Minister should now admit that joining the Iraq war was wrong.

"Mr. Howard took Australia to war for a purpose that wasn't true," said Mark Latham. "He's made us a bigger target in the war against terror. He diverted resources from the real security of the Australian people on the home front and getting it right in Asia, so it's a terrible decision."

Australia has become a particular target of transnational terrorism. Eighty-eight Australians were among 202 people killed in a bombing on the Indonesian island of Bali in 2002, and a bomb set off outside the Australian embassy in Jakarta last month killed about a dozen people.