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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Howard Calls for November Election

CANBERRA, Australia -- Australian Prime Minister John Howard called general elections for Nov. 24, which will decide whether Australia will start bringing home its troops from Iraq and which could bring a graceless end to his 11 years in power.

Howard, Australia's second-longest serving leader, faces a tough battle to win a fifth term in office against Labor Party opposition leader Kevin Rudd, a Chinese-speaking former diplomat who has held a commanding lead in opinion polls for months.

The election date, announced Sunday, had been widely expected. It comes after months of intense, unofficial campaigning that has failed to dent Rudd's advantage.

Analysts expect the six-week campaign to be bitterly fought.

On Sunday, Howard sought to place the guardianship of Australia's more than 15-year economic boom as the key campaign issue, and to paint Rudd as inexperienced and beholden to labor unions.

"I believe very passionately that this country's best years can lie ahead of us," Howard said at a news conference. "In order for that to happen this country does not need new leadership. It does not need old leadership. It needs the right leadership."

"Love me or loathe me, the Australian people know where I stand on all the major issues of importance to their future," he said.

Rudd responded by promising a steady hand on the economic tiller, while accusing Howard's government of being out of ideas and unable to deal with modern issues such as global warming and Internet broadband.

"Our country has a future too full of promise to allow a government that's been in office for 11 years, a government that's lost touch, and a government that's gone stale, just to continue on," Rudd said at a news conference.

With the economic boom -- driven by demand from China and India for Australia's coal and other minerals -- showing no sign of slowing, the workplace, education and climate change are key policy battlegrounds.

Australia's deployment in Iraq is a background issue, but an important one because it is an area of clear difference and affects Australia's most important foreign relationship -- with the United States.

Howard, a staunch ally of U.S. President George W. Bush, sent 2,000 troops to support U.S. and British forces in the 2003 Iraq invasion and says the 1,600 Australian forces still there will stay as long as they are needed.

Rudd has promised to withdraw Australia's 550 combat troops from Iraq, in consultation with Washington, leaving the rest there in lesser roles.

Howard on Sunday conceded that his Iraq policy was unpopular with many Australians, but said withdrawing now would embolden terrorists worldwide.

"But I do not think it is in Australia's national interest to participate in a premature withdrawal from Iraq that would be perceived as a Western defeat," he said.

Rudd used the Iraq deployment and other issues to try to turn Howard's claim to greater experience against the prime minister.

"Mr. Howard has had a lot of experience in taking Australia into a war without an exit strategy," Rudd said.