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Last Updated: Sunday, 18 March 2007, 00:56 GMT
Australia in Iraq troops pledge
John  Howard (L) and Nouri Maliki
Howard faces growing opposition to the Iraq conflict at home
Australian troops will remain in Iraq until Iraqis are able to take control of their own security, Australian Prime Minister John Howard has said.

Speaking on a surprise visit to Baghdad, Mr Howard refused to be drawn on when Australia's roughly 1,500 troops would be withdrawn.

Mr Howard has been one of US President George W Bush's staunchest allies in Iraq since the US-led invasion of 2003.

He has however faced growing opposition among Australians to the conflict.

As Mr Howard visited Iraq, hundreds of people in Australia demonstrated against the conflict, part of an international day of protests to mark the fourth anniversary of the invasion.

The aircraft taking the prime minister to Baghdad had to make an emergency landing in southern Iraq after the cabin filled with smoke.

Mr Howard, who was unhurt, continued his journey in a different plane.

The cause of incident is being investigated.

Future security

At a joint news conference with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, Mr Howard said Australia was committed to helping Iraq restore security.

"I have... told the prime minister that Australia will continue its presence in Iraq to assist in bringing about a situation where the Iraqi people are reasonably able to provide for their own future and for their own security," he said.

"We both agreed that the future lies in collaboration between improved security and reconciliation in the political process."

Mr Howard refused to be drawn on a timetable for the withdrawal of Australian troops.

"Great progress has been achieved, but there is still work to be done," he said.

"As you know, I don't set speculative dates. There is nothing to be achieved by that."

About 2,000 Australian troops joined in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, sparking the biggest anti-war protests in the country since the Vietnam war.

Most of its forces are based in southern Iraq, along with British units.

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