SYDNEY, Australia – Australian troops in Iraq got a surprise visit Sunday from Prime Minister John Howard (search), a trip that coincided with the country's main veterans' commemoration.
The visit was Howard's first to Iraq (search) since he sent 2,000 troops to take part in last year's invasion and then replaced them with 850 military personnel to help in reconstruction.
Howard attended a emotion-charged ceremony at Baghdad International Airport to mark Anzac Day (search), which honors troops who fought in World War I's ill-fated Gallipoli campaign.
He was accompanied by the commander of coalition ground forces, U.S. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez.
Afterward Howard said it was the first Anzac Day service in which he could hear automatic gunfire crackling in the background.
"It's certainly the most moving Anzac Day dawn service I've been to in many respects," he told reporters. "There's an immediacy about this."
Wearing camouflaged body armor with "Howard" handwritten on the front, the prime minister flew into Baghdad on a military transport plane amid tight security.
He brushed off the danger, saying Australian forces face far greater peril.
"They continue a great tradition of commitment and sacrifice by Australian service personnel," Howard said.
"In remembering those who in the past have given their lives defending our freedoms and way of life, we should also honor those who today put their lives at risk in the service of Australia."
While the brief visit was officially to boost the morale of Australia's troops, it could also bolster Howard's bid to stay in power. He is seeking a fourth term in elections due by late this year.
Iraq has become a key campaign issue with the opposition Labor Party pledging to pull out Australia's forces by year's end.
Howard, a staunch American ally, has said he will keep troops in Iraq for as long as it takes them to complete their work.
In his remarks in Baghdad, he said his government had earmarked enough funds to keep troops in Iraq until mid-2005 but added that did not mean they all would stay there that long.
A total of 1 million men fought in the nine-month campaign on Turkey's Gallipoli peninsula that began April 25, 1915.
The Allies recorded 55,000 killed, 10,000 missing and 21,000 dead of disease, mainly dysentery. Turkish casualties were estimated at 250,000.
Australia has suffered no casualties in Iraq so far.