Australian military commanders will start discussions on Tuesday about switching the role of the country's troops in Iraq from combat to training.
John Howard, prime minister, announced the planned change in a televised debate with the Labor opposition leader Kevin Rudd ahead of the November 24 election.
The discussions with the US and Iraqi authorities were a sign of progress, Mr Howard said. "We've moved from providing security, and remember these troops also do humanitarian [work] and they're going to evolve to a greater training role."
Australia has been a staunch supporter of the US over the war in Iraq. However, the issue has become increasingly unpopular in Australia in the run-up to the election. Labor has campaigned on the promise of a phased withdrawal of Australian troops from the middle of next year.
Mr Howard repeatedly refused to answer questions over whether the terrorist threat had risen since Australia backed the US-led invasion of Iraq.
Mr Rudd claimed Mr Howard had misled Australia before on Iraq when on the eve of the past election he promised not to increase troops to Iraq. "But when he won the election he virtually doubled our troop numbers."
In a sometimes testy encounter between the two leaders, Mr Howard was also forced to defend his role on climate change.
Australia and the US both refused to ratify the Kyoto protocol on climate change.
"At the moment, Kyoto doesn't effectively cover the US and China - that's a bit like having an international World Cup in cricket without Australia and India," Mr Howard said.
However, Mr Howard on Sunday night said he was in a strong position to push the US to act on climate change, adding the US needed to "move a lot further" on the issue.
He also used the leaders' debate to announce a policy whereby money from the sale of carbon permits under an emissions trading scheme would be used by the government to subsidise electricity bills for low-income earners.
In what may be the only debate between the two leaders during the election campaign, Mr Rudd, a former diplomat, was regarded as the better performer during the 1?-hour contest.
He scored points against the prime minister on issues including education, health, tax and industrial relations.
However, Mr Howard was also thought to have lost previous debates against the former opposition Labor leaders Mark Latham and Kim Beazley, only to emerge victorious when the elections were held. ( FT )