By ROHAN SULLIVAN
The Associated Press
Monday, February 12, 2007; 12:59 PM
SYDNEY, Australia -- Australian Prime Minister John Howard on Monday denied having a political motive when he said terrorists in Iraq would be praying for Democratic hopeful Barack Obama to become U.S. president.
Howard, a steadfast supporter of President 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 in November 2008.
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.
"I'm doing nothing of the kind. I don't retract anything I said," Howard told Parliament in Canberra.
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.
He then challenged Howard on his commitment to the Iraq conflict, noting the United States has nearly 140,000 troops in Iraq compared with Australia's about 1,400 forces in the region.
"So if he is ginned up to fight the good fight in Iraq, I would suggest that he calls up another 20,000 Australians and sends them to Iraq," Obama said. "Otherwise it's just a bunch of empty rhetoric."
In Washington, White House spokesman Tony Snow said Howard was entitled to his opinion. He added that Bush has not talked with the Australian prime minister since Jan. 9.
"John Howard has free speech and he's free to say what he does," Snow said. "The prime minister spoke his mind."
Howard said in a radio interview that Australia's troop commitment is "very significant and appropriate" given the country's relatively small population of about 20 million.
In the latest ACNielsen poll published Monday in Fairfax newspapers, 48 percent of respondents named Rudd as their preferred prime minister, compared with 43 percent for Howard. Five percent were undecided. The national telephone survey of 1,412 voters was conducted Feb. 8-10 _ before Howard's comments on Obama _ and had a margin of error of 2.6 percentage points.