Former defense chiefs and diplomats condemned Australia (search)'s involvement in the Iraq war Sunday in a major blow to Prime Minister John Howard (search)'s re-election prospects.

The 43 eminent Australians including two former chiefs of defense and three ambassadors issued a scathing public statement accusing the government of deceit and of rubber-stamping foreign policies decided by Washington.

With some commentators predicting that Howard this week will announce a Sept. 18 election, the statement underscores the war as a major issue. Howard hopes for a fourth three-year term as prime minister.

Australia and Britain were the only allies to send troops to support the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq (search).

"We are concerned that Australia was committed to join the invasion of Iraq on the basis of false assumptions and the deception of the Australian people," the statement said. "Above all, it is wrong and dangerous for our elected representatives to mislead the Australian people."

Howard, who was in Samoa for a Pacific leaders' forum, said: "The argument that we took the country to war based on a lie is itself a misrepresentation and I continue to reject it."

Two inquiries have found the government had not misrepresented intelligence about Iraq's weapons programs and had not pressured spy agencies into bolstering a case for war.

The parliament is expected this week to endorse a free trade agreement between Australia and the United States which Howard has described as a priority before going to an election.

Howard's decision to commit 2,000 troops to the Iraq invasion sparked the biggest peace protests in Australia since the Vietnam War.

Howard cited Iraq's weapons of mass destruction as the main reason for war and maintains he has no regrets despite no weapons being found.

Australia still has nearly 900 troops in and around Iraq, and their deployment is likely to become a key election issue, with Howard saying they must remain there as long as they are needed.