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Last Updated: Thursday, 5 July 2007, 17:25 GMT 18:25 UK
Howard's steadfast resolve on Iraq
Australia's defence minister sparked a heated debate by admitting oil security was a reason for Australia's continued presence in Iraq.

As the BBC's Nick Bryant reports, the controversy generated by his remarks shows how important the issue of Iraq has become to Prime Minister John Howard.

John Howard (file photo)
John Howard portrays himself as a politician with conviction

John Howard watched the events of 9/11 unfold not from The Lodge, his prime ministerial residence in Canberra, nor Kirribilli House, his cottage overlooking Sydney Harbour.

That day, he found himself at the Willard Hotel in Washington DC, where he could see the smoke rise from the smouldering Pentagon.

Regardless of where Mr Howard was that day, his government would always have been a staunch ally in the Bush administration's "war on terror", for strategic as well as ideological reasons.

But his presence in the US at such a definitive and emotionally-charged moment unquestionably instilled in him a personal and enduring devotion to the cause.

It partly explains his unflinching support for the war in Iraq, and so too, his country's long-standing commitment to Afghanistan.

So last Sunday, when a newspaper report suggested that concealed up the prime minister's sleeve was a secret plan to begin withdrawing Australian troops next February, he delivered a typically caustic retort.

"The story from this morning is absurd," he was quick to tell reporters. "The plan is so secret, I don't know anything about it."

The political rationale underpinning the report was that Mr Howard would announce the withdrawal before the federal election expected later in the year, thus neutralising the issue.

But his robust response, along with an equally unequivocal keynote speech on Thursday defending his controversial stance, suggests he is not looking for an easy way out.

Comfortable terrain

There is no doubt about the unpopularity of the war.

Labor leader Kevin Rudd calls it Australia's greatest foreign policy blunder since "diggers" were dispatched to Vietnam, a view which appears to chime with public opinion.

Australian Defence Minister Brendan Nelson
Brendan Nelson's comments will have embarrassed Mr Howard

According to a poll published in February, 68% of voters opposed Australia's role in the war.

But the polls also show that John Howard is consistently ahead of Mr Rudd on his handling of national security - the all-encompassing reason, he regularly cites, for Australia's continued presence in and around Iraq, which number some 1,000 troops and 600 members of the air force and navy.

Paradoxically, many Howard watchers maintain that the debate on Iraq is good for his approval ratings, since they shift public attention away from issues such as the environment and industrial relations, where his government is even more vulnerable.

It is also political terrain upon which he feels comfortable.

His unwavering support for the Iraq war also exemplifies some of the personal qualities which have made Mr Howard Australia's second longest serving prime minister.

These include his decisiveness, his determination, his experience, his battling qualities and his willingness to stand in defiance of public opinion, as he demonstrated ahead of the 1998 election when he advocated the introduction of the GST, a deeply unpopular consumption tax, much like VAT.

Emblematic issue

John Winston Howard likes to think he has something of a Churchillian touch.

He was quick to condemn Defence Minister Brendan Nelson for suggesting that oil was a factor in Australia's continued presence in Iraq because it undercut his personal leadership.

Australian Army Bushmaster Infantry Mobility Vehicle (IMV) on patrol at an undisclosed location in Iraq. ( June 2007)
Some 1,600 Australian military personnel are in the Gulf

It implied that cynical motives were at play rather than steadfast principles.

Mr Howard tries to portray himself as the ultimate conviction politician. Suggestions of an oil grab sound unprincipled and opportunistic. They impugned him.

For all the unpopularity of the war, Iraq has proved less damaging to John Howard than it has to his wartime counterparts, the US' George W Bush and Britain's Tony Blair.

For a start, Australia has lost just one soldier in Iraq, Jake Kovco, whom a military investigation determined killed himself while "skylarking" with his own weapon.

Similarly, the failure to find weapons of mass destruction did not injure Mr Howard as badly as Mr Blair, since he had not made the pre-war argument with such force or marshalled so much intelligence - later shown to be unfounded - to prove his point.

Certainly, Iraq is not the paramount concern of the Australian electorate.

And when historians come to review the Howard premiership they will not devote as many pages to Iraq as the biographers of Bush and Blair.

Still, for many voters, Iraq has become an emblematic issue.

It speaks of what critics regard as Mr Howard's slavish devotion to the US-Australian alliance and of a prime minister, arrogant after 11 years in office, who has lost touch with the electorate.

To them, one of the prime architects of the Iraq war will also become the author of his own demise.

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