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Australia: Most now oppose war

• Interactive: Who's who in Iraq
• Interactive: Sectarian divide
John Howard

SYDNEY, Australia (CNN) -- Australian public sentiment over the war in Iraq has swung once again with most people now believing Canberra should not have joined the U.S.-led invasion last year, according to a new poll.

After initial opposition to war plans, support for the U.S.-led action increased to a majority during the early phases of the invasion which began in March 2003.

But as the conflict drags on and coalition casualties mount, opinion appears to have swung back.

The Newspoll survey, conducted last weekend and published in The Australian newspaper on Tuesday, found 50 percent now opposed the war while 40 percent still agreed with the conservative coalition government's decision to participate.

Australia currently has about 850 troops still in Iraq, after originally sending more than 2,000 troops, fighter aircraft and naval vessels, to the coalition invasion.

And in what is shaping as a potential election issue, Australians are fairly evenly split on when the remaining troops should be brought back from Iraq.

Prime Minister John Howard this week indicated that Australian troops would remain in Iraq until at least August 2005, and suggested a small increase in the numbers was possible.

Howard and senior government members publicly condemned the decision last month by Spain, Honduras and the Dominican Republic, to withdraw their troops.

Labor opposition leader Mark Latham has indicated he would like to see those troops brought home before the end of the year.

According to the Newspoll survey, 47 percent agree with Latham and 45 percent with Howard.

The issue of Iraq is expected to be a key factor in upcoming national elections, tipped for October this year.

Howard, who is fighting for a fourth consecutive term in power, on Monday announced he would visit the United States in mid-June to discuss the Iraq situation.

More troops sent

Howard said he would meet U.S. President George W. Bush and senior members of his administration between June 2 and June 4.

"A key focus of our discussions will be on our shared commitment to the future of Iraq with less than one month to go before the transfer of sovereignty there," Howard said in a statement.

"I will also consult on the challenges ahead as we confront together the threat of global terrorism," he said.

As part of the same overseas trip, Howard plans to visit Britain and be in France for D-Day commemorations.

The government also announced on Monday it was sending 53 extra troops to Iraq to help train the nation's fledgling army.

Defense Minister Robert Hill said the team would provide training in weapons, leadership and drill procedures for three Iraqi army battalions and a brigade headquarters staff.

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