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Last Updated: Monday, 12 February 2007, 11:50 GMT
Australia PM slams US candidate
Australian Prime Minister John Howard
Prime Minister Howard fears failure in Iraq could cause destabilisation
Australian PM John Howard has criticised US presidential hopeful Barack Obama for saying US troops should withdraw from Iraq next year.

His comments came soon after Mr Obama officially announced he would seek the Democratic Presidential nomination.

Mr Howard said al-Qaeda should be "praying as many times as possible" for an Obama victory in the 2008 elections.

But Mr Obama reacted by saying Australia should increase its troops in Iraq, if Mr Howard was so concerned.

'Victory for the terrorists'

According to the BBC correspondent in Sydney, Nick Bryant, John Howard is the type of politician who will happily cross a road for a fight.

But now he has taken the less familiar step of crossing an entire continent, our correspondent says.

Barack Obama
Mr Obama will contest the Democrat presidential nomination
Mr Howard said Mr Obama's stance on Iraq "will just encourage those who want to completely destabilise and destroy Iraq, and create chaos and a victory for the terrorists to hang on and hope for an Obama victory".

"If I were running al-Qaeda in Iraq, I would put a circle around March 2008 and be praying as many times as possible for a victory not only for Obama but also for the Democrats."

Mr Howard said any withdrawal of US troops by March 2008 - the date Mr Obama believes should be set - would mean defeat for Washington.

He said that defeat for the US would end hopes for peace in the Palestinian Territories and cause widespread destabilisation in countries such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan.

Obama is right! Whilst John Howard has gone all out in his support of the war in Iraq, he has only sent 1,400 troops
Kim, Melbourne

In making his comments, Mr Howard appears to have broken that unwritten diplomatic rule of not intervening in the domestic politics of another nation, our correspondent says.

This is an election year in Australia and the opposition Labor party has fiercely condemned Mr Howard's remarks, saying he has transformed the country's long-standing alliance with America into a political marriage with the Bush administration.

But Mr Howard remains unrepentant, and insists he was not meddling with American domestic politics.

"That is absurd," he said. "What I have done is to criticise Senator Obama's views on a particular issue, and I don't retreat in any way," he told reporters.

'Empty rhetoric'

Mr Obama, who has described the Iraq war as "tragic", said he was "flattered" by Mr Howard's statement.

He said: "I think it's flattering that one of George Bush's allies on the other side of the world started attacking me the day after I announced.

"I would also note that we have close to 140,000 troops on the ground now, and my understanding is Mr Howard has deployed 1,400, so if he is (ready) to fight the good fight in Iraq, I would suggest that he calls up another 20,000 Australians and sends them to Iraq."

"Otherwise it's just a bunch of empty rhetoric," he added.

Mr Howard, though, countered that the Australian deployment was a "very significant and appropriate contribution", given the country's small population.

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