Prime Minister John Howard, one of the staunchest U.S. allies in the war in Iraq, defied predictions about a close race and won a convincing victory for a historic fourth term on Saturday despite widespread public disagreement in Australia with Howard's position on the war.

With about 77 percent of the vote counted, official figures showed Howard's conservative coalition had 52.4 percent to the opposition Labor Party's 47.6 percent, a clear lead in the race for a majority in Parliament's 150-seat lower house, where the government is formed. The victory ensured that Australia will keep its roughly 900 troops in Iraq.

Howard appeared likely to increase his government's majority in Parliament, contradicting analysts' predictions that the result would be very tight.

"I am truly humbled by this extraordinary expression of confidence in the leadership of this great nation by the coalition," Howard told cheering supporters in Sydney. "In accepting their charge to lead the nation, I rededicate myself and all of my colleagues to the service of the Australian people."

The Labor Party leader, Mark Latham, conceded defeat before supporters in western Sydney, saying he had called Howard to congratulate him. "Tonight was not our night," Latham told the crowd.

The election was widely seen abroad as the first referendum for the three leaders who launched the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, with President Bush seeking reelection next month and Prime Minister Tony Blair probably facing British voters next year.

The Labor Party had vowed to bring Australian troops in and around Iraq home by Christmas, while Howard insisted they would stay until Iraqis asked them to leave. Australian troops have not suffered any casualties and none has a combat role.

Australians have focused more on the economy, health and education than on Howard's unpopular decision to join the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq. Howard sent 2,000 troops to Iraq last year, prompting accusations he was Bush's lackey.

Prime Minister John Howard waves to supporters with his wife and son after claiming victory for his conservative coalition in the Australian election. Howard sent troops to Iraq as part of the U.S.-led invasion.