Australia will send 450 extra troops to Iraq, increasing its military contingent in the Persian Gulf by 50 percent. Prime Minister John Howard made the surprise announcement, saying Iraq is now at a "tilting point" following recent elections and that more military forces were needed to help rebuild the country.

The new Australian contingent will be deployed in southern Iraq to work alongside Japanese engineers. The 450 new infantry troops also will help train Iraqi security forces.

The announcement follows negotiations with the British and Japanese governments about increasing Australia's troop levels in the Persian Gulf. About 950 Australian troops are deployed in the region now.

Prime Minister John Howard said Tuesday the recent decision by the Netherlands to withdraw 1,400 soldiers from southern Iraq, where they had been for the past two years, was a crucial factor in his decision.

The Australian leader said he feared that if the gap in security is not filled, then the Japanese might pull out, which would be "a very serious blow to the coalition effort."

Mr. Howard says that for Iraq to successfully make the transition to democracy, the U.S.-led military coalition must remain on the ground.

He went on to say Australia is ready to shoulder an additional share of the security burden.

"The government believes that Iraq is very much at a tilting point and it's very important that the opportunity of democracy, not only in Iraq but also in other parts of the Middle East, be seized and consolidated," said John Howard.

The new task force should be ready to leave Australia in around 10 weeks and will stay in Iraq indefinitely.

Mr. Howard acknowledges that the deployment will "be unpopular with many" Australians.

There has been strong opposition in Australia to Mr. Howard's his support of the United States in the Persian Gulf. Canberra sent 2,000 troops to take part in the invasion of Iraq two years ago.