Military funeral halts Australian election race

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CANBERRA, Oct 17 (Reuters) The funeral of the first soldier in Australia's Aghanistan and Iraq forces to be killed by enemy action halted Australia's election race today, as the top party leaders called a truce to attend.

Prime Minister John Howard and Labor's Kevin Rudd took time out from a campaign that will determine the future of Australia's military contribution to Iraq, with Rudd promising to bring combat troops home, to join mourners and military chiefs at a cathedral in Brisbane.

''It's a double sadness,'' Rudd told local radio.

''It is (sad) for any family who's lost a loved one, but in particular a family who's lost a man in uniform representing his country, fighting for his country overseas,'' he said.

''Mr Howard and myself are as one today in expressing our solidarity with the family on the loss of a good man.'' Australia's first combat fatality in the US-led war on terror occurred earlier this month when the 41-year-old soldier's armoured vehicle was destroyed by a roadside bomb attack in southern Afghanistan's restive Oruzgan province.

Australia, a close US ally, was one of the first nations to commit troops in late 2001 to the fight to oust the Taliban and al Qaeda militants from Afghanistan. It also has about 1,500 troops in and around Iraq.

In Afghanistan, close to 1,000 Australian military engineers and special forces soldiers are working alongside Dutch troops on security and reconstruction.

The head of Australia's military, Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston, plus members of the dead soldier's unit wearing black armbands, joined his widow on Friday as the casket, draped with the Australian flag, was piped into the cathedral.

Rudd, 50, a former diplomat riding high in opinion surveys ahead of the Nov. 24 election, has promised to bring home Australia's 550 combat troops in Iraq in a ''phased withdrawal'', while promising to maintain close ties with Washington.

Howard, 68, facing a landslide loss and opinion polls showing an overwhelming majority of Australians do not support involvement in the Iraq war, has argued a premature withdrawal from Iraq would be ''an enormous boost to terrorism''.

A survey last month before the soldier's death also showed war-weary Australians evenly divided on support for the war in Afghanistan.

But regardless which side wins the election, Australia will keep its troops in Oruzgan and possibly even bolster their numbers slightly if the 1,300-strong Dutch forces withdraw, requiring replacement by either Australian or NATO troops.

Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai said this week he would welcome more soldiers from Australia, with Rudd's Labor saying it would be ''attentive to any requests'' if elected.

Defence analyst Hugh White said whichever side won, it would not make a large difference to the size of Australia's Iraq or Afghanistan deployments.

''Where the Labor Party is at the moment on Iraq is closer to where the government is than one might have thought from Rudd's withdrawal rhetoric,'' White, a former senior defence official now with the Australian National University, told Reuters.

But that was because Howard's conservative coalition had moved closer to Labor's position, with the government talking of a switch to training Iraqi security forces, he said.

''It's now fairly clear from the way in which Howard is speaking that the government does not envisage increasing numbers and in fact envisages a re-allocation of resources, including most probably a withdrawal of the battlegroup,'' White said.

REUTERS RN AS1006

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