Australia soldier's death brings election challenge

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CANBERRA, Oct 9 (Reuters) Australia's Prime Minister John Howard, tipped to call an election any day, moved today to douse fallout from war-weary voters over the country's first combat death in Afghanistan, saying it was in a just cause.

An Australian soldier was killed and another wounded when a roadside bomb detonated next to their armoured vehicle in southern Uruzgan province in Afghanistan as they were guarding a convoy of reconstruction engineers.

''The operation in Afghanistan involves resisting brutal terrorism. It's a just cause and this soldier was part of an Australian contribution to that just cause,'' Howard said.

Lagging badly in polls, Howard is expected to call an election this weekend or next, with public opposition to the war in Iraq and Afghanistan to be a major issue.

A survey last week found 68 per cent of Australians opposed involvement in Iraq and 50 per cent opposed deployment in Afghanistan, where close to 1,000 Australian special forces soldiers and engineers are working with Dutch troops on reconstruction.

Australia, a close US ally, was one of the first to commit troops in late 2001 to the US-led war to oust the Taliban and al Qaeda militants from Afghanistan. The country also has around 1,500 troops in and around Iraq.

An Australian airman become the nation's first military casualty in Iraq in 2005, killed while serving with Britain's Royal Air Force when a C-130 Hercules transport plane crashed north of Baghdad.

Both Howard and opposition Labor leader Kevin Rudd have pledged to keep troops in Afghanistan, although Rudd has promised a withdrawal of combat troops from Iraq if elected.

The head of Australia's military, Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston, said he was confident the country's latest combat loss would not lead to further erosion of public confidence in the war, which Howard last week said was dragging.

''I think we've got a very clear mission in Afghanistan. We are very happy with the level of support,'' Houston said.

An Australian special forces soldier was killed in 2002 when his vehicle hit a landmine in southern Afghanistan, but Monday's death was the first from a direct enemy attack since the start of the so-called war on terror in 2001.

Houston said the vehicle had been patrolling near the village of Saad Murda close to the main Australian base at Camp Holland when the blast occurred. The injured soldier was evacuated by helicopter and was expected to make a rapid recovery.

A survey by Sydney University last week found almost three-quarters of Australians thought deployments to Iraq had made the country a bigger terrorist target, placing them at odds with Howard's view that the war had made the country safer.

The soldier's death may make Howard's job harder and came as new pre-election polling showed the youthful Rudd, 50, maintained a strong 52 per cent to 39 lead over Howard as preferred prime minister. Labor also had a 56 percent cent to 44 lead over Howard's conservatives on preferences, the AC Nielsen poll showed.

REUTERS TB AS0713

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