SYDNEY, Australia (AP) – Prime Minister John Howard’s conservative alliance handily won a fourth term in Australia’s parliamentary elections Saturday, overcoming widespread anger at his decision to send troops to Iraq last year and his pledge to keep them there.

The island continent’s robust economy under Howard’s leadership apparently trumped concerns about the war. It has grown during every one of his nine years in office, with unemployment close to all-time lows and inflation running at just 2 percent.

The election was watched abroad as the first referendum for the three main leaders in the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, with President Bush facing a ballot in three weeks and British Prime Minister Tony Blair probably facing voters next spring.

Bush was quick to praise the victory.

“I want to congratulate my good friend Prime Minister John Howard, who won a great victory,” he said Saturday at a campaign event in St. Louis.

With more than three-fourths of votes counted, official results gave Howard’s coalition 52.4 percent to Labor’s 47.6 percent.

The outcome means Australia will make good on Howard’s pledge to keep 900 troops in Iraq until Iraqi authorities say they are no longer needed. The opposition Labor Party led by Mark Latham vowed to bring Australian soldiers home by Christmas if it won power.

Australian troops have not suffered any casualties and do not have combat roles.

A jubilant Howard claimed victory late Saturday in front of hundreds of cheering supporters at a Sydney hotel after it became clear his government would increase its majority in the 150-seat lower house of parliament, where government is formed. Voters also chose 40 of the 76 seats in the Senate.

“I am truly humbled by this extraordinary expression of confidence in the leadership of this great nation by the coalition,” Howard, 65, said.

He did not mention Iraq by name during his speech but said Australia had gained international respect “because we are prepared to stand up for what we believe in.”

Howard also took some credit for the Afghan presidential election also occurring Saturday.

“That election has been made possible by reason of the fact that a number of countries, including Australia, were prepared to take a stand for democracy and to take a stand against terrorism,” he said.

Howard’s victory was sure to encourage the Bush administration, which lost Spain as an ally in the Iraq coalition earlier this year after an election setback. Three days after the March 11 terrorist bombings on Madrid commuter trains killed 191 people, Spain’s voters elected a left-of-center party that subsequently pulled their country’s troops out of Iraq.

The bombings were blamed on Islamic militants with links to al-Qaida.

While many Australians strongly opposed involvement in Iraq, the country played only a minor role in the six-week campaign. Instead, Howard and Latham, 43, concentrated on social issues such as the economy, health and education.

Howard repeatedly warned that a Latham government likely would drive up interest rates for the millions of Australians paying off home loans.

Labor lawmakers branded that claim a lie but conceded it hurt them.

“That interest rate lie really resonated,” said Kim Beazley, a former Labor leader who lost the 2001 election. “Howard is very good at that … he got the lie up early and we never answered it.”

The campaign also hinged on personalities, with Howard seen as a colorless but reliable steward of the economy and Latham as young and energetic but also inexperienced and sometimes undisciplined.

Latham conceded defeat before supporters in western Sydney, saying he would call Howard to congratulate him.

“Tonight was not our night,” he told the crowd.

Howard sent 2,000 soldiers for the Iraq invasion last year despite huge protest marches portraying him as Bush’s lackey. The number has since dwindled to 900.

Latham argued the Iraq war was a distraction from the international fight against terrorism, saying Australia’s security policy should focus closer to home in Southeast Asia.

That was a clear nod to his countrymen’s fears of attacks after the Oct. 12, 2002, bombings on the Indonesian island of Bali that killed 202 people, many of them Australians, and the Sept. 9 bombing of the Australian Embassy in Indonesia’s capital that killed nine people.

But the message did not resonate.

John Atkins, 59, voting in Sydney, said he voted for Howard and did not approve of Latham’s plan to withdraw from Iraq even though he personally opposed the war.

“I was very concerned when the Labor Party said it would pull out the troops by Christmas,” Atkins said. “We should never have gone in, but once we had we need to stay.”

AP-ES-10-09-04 1510EDT

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