Australian leader defends verbal attack on US presidential candidate Obama

Australian Prime Minister John Howard on Monday denied having a political motive when he said terrorists in Iraq would be praying for Democratic hopeful Barak Obama to become U.S. president.

Howard, a steadfast supporter of U.S. President George W. Bush in the Iraq war, insisted his criticism of Obama's plan to withdraw U.S. combat troops in Iraq by March 31 next year was in Australia's national interest because Obama's plan would represent a defeat for Australia's most important military ally.

Howard's foray into U.S. politics dominated Monday's session of Parliament and news bulletins in Australia, and triggered a sharp response from Obama and senators on both sides of U.S. politics, including one who called the comments "bizarre."

The issue overshadowed the results of a new opinion poll published Monday showing Howard, who will attempt to lead his conservative coalition to a fifth term at elections expected later this year, is lagging badly behind Labor opposition leader Kevin Rudd.

In a nationally televised interview on Sunday, Howard said Obama's plan meant al-Qaida leaders in Iraq should "be praying as many times as possible for a victory, not only for Obama but also for the Democrats" at presidential elections due late next year.

Rudd said Howard's comments amounted to calling the Democrats "the terrorists' party of choice" and could harm Australia's future with a possible Democratic U.S. administration, reports AP.

"I'm doing nothing of the kind. I don't retract anything I said," Howard told Parliament in Canberra, the national capital.

He said the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops from Iraq early next year would be seen as a U.S. defeat that would "encourage and give succor" to terrorists in the Middle East and Asia and be "catastrophic for the West."

"I hold the strongest possible view that it is contrary to the security interests of this country for America to be defeated in Iraq," Howard said.

"Let me make it perfectly clear, if I hear a policy being advocated that is contrary to Australia's security interests, I will criticize it."

Obama, in Iowa a day after formally announcing his candidacy, responded to Howard's initial comments by saying he was flattered that one of Bush's close allies had chosen to single him out for attack.

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