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Last Updated: Thursday, 7 October, 2004, 05:44 GMT 06:44 UK
Howard defends Iraq war
By Phil Mercer
BBC, Sydney

John Howard, campaign launch 26 September 2004
Howard is slightly ahead of Latham in the polls
Australia's PM John Howard has defended his decision to join the war in Iraq.

In one of his final speeches before national elections on Saturday, Mr Howard said he had no regrets sending troops to the Gulf.

He was responding to the chief UN weapons inspector's report that found no stockpiles of banned weapons in Iraq at the time of the US-led invasion.

Opposition leader Mark Latham has said Mr Howard must now admit his mistakes over Iraq.

Mr Howard, in an address to the national press club in Canberra, concentrated on the two main pillars of his bid for re-election - economic prosperity and a steady hand in matters of national security.

There was no mention of Iraq until a question and answer session after his speech.

Ainsley Campbell, son of veteran politician Graeme Campbell, on the campaign trial near the remote gold mining town of Kalgoorlie

Wasn't it time, Mr Howard was asked, to come clean on weapons of mass destruction, given the report by the Iraq Survey Group?

The prime minister, who is seeking a fourth consecutive term in office, said the war in the Gulf was justified.

"I stand by the decision we took in relation to Iraq. 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 Hussein with all that implies would still be running Iraq," he said.

Mr Howard has insisted that the former Iraqi president was intent on resuming his biological, chemical and nuclear weapons programmes and had the capability to do so.

Mr Latham has accused the prime minister of making Australia less safe by taking a leading role in Iraq and has demanded that Mr Howard apologise for making a mistake.

Iraq and the broader issue of national security are important issues in this election campaign, although Saturday's contest is likely to be won or lost over domestic concerns such as the economy and education.

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