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Last Updated: Monday, 19 March 2007, 05:11 GMT
Howard returns from Iraq mission
By Phil Mercer
BBC News, Sydney

John  Howard (L) and Nouri Maliki
Howard faces growing opposition to the Iraq conflict at home
Australian Prime Minister John Howard is returning home from unscheduled visits to Iraq and Afghanistan.

During the visits he pledged continued support for both US-led campaigns.

Mr Howard has always insisted that his government's decision to deploy troops in Afghanistan and Iraq would make the world more secure.

Despite domestic opposition to the Iraq mission, Mr Howard is hoping that national security will be a vote winner in elections later this year.

Veteran leader

John Howard is coming home with a real fight on his hands.

He is lagging well behind in the opinion polls, as he gears up to contest a fifth straight election later this year.

The opposition Labour Party has been rejuvenated under new leader Kevin Rudd.

Mr Rudd has brought a freshness to the political arena that voters are finding appealing after more than a decade of Mr Howard.

The prime minister intends to use his visits to Iraq and Afghanistan to reinforce his national security credentials.

This week he is expected to deliver a major speech outlining why Australian troops must stay in Iraq.

Mr Howard said he was cautiously optimistic that the US-led mission would achieve "a very good outcome".

Canberra has sent about 1,500 troops to the Gulf, and they have suffered very few casualties.

But critics say the deployments in both Iraq and Afghanistan have made Australia more of a target for extremists.

The opposition has promised to bring the soldiers home, if it forms the next government.

Labour believes that many Australians share its views, and will show their support at the ballot box.

John Howard, though, is a wily and seasoned fighter. The backbone of his election campaign will be his impressive economic record.

He will want to persuade the electorate that he's a strong and decisive leader when it comes to matters of national security. Unlike his allies in the United States and Britain, Mr Howard sees political mileage in his country's involvement in Iraq.

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