The televised debate was the only one before the election on November 24 [AFP]

The leader of Australia's principal opposition party has said he will withdraw his country's forces from Iraq if elected the prime minister.

Kevin Rudd has also described the conflict as the "greatest single error of Australian national security and foreign policy decision making since Vietnam".

The leader of the Labor party made the comments during a televised pre-election debate with John Howard, the Australian prime minister.

Rudd said the case for going to war was never strong enough.

"The benchmarks which Mr Howard set for going to war just haven't been met," Rudd said on Sunday.

"He like I accepted at various levels that Saddam Hussein had WMD [weapons of mass destruction] but we oppose to a man his decision to go to war because the case for going to war was not strong enough."

"It's increased the terrorist threat rather than reduce it."

'Evolving role'

Australia, a close ally of the United States, has about 1,600 troops in and around Iraq and Rudd said he would withdraw about 580 combat troops from Iraq's south.

"We have a plan to withdraw the combat force by the middle of next year," he said.

Howard said commanders in Iraq would start negotiations next week on an "evolving" role for Australian forces in Iraq.

"While ever I am prime minister, the foreign policy of this country will never be dictated by terrorists," he said.

Rudd and Howard were debating head to head for the first and last time before elections on November 24.

Opposition lead

Rudd, 50, had argued for a series of debates throughout the six-week campaign as new policies are revealed, but Howard insisted  that only one televised debate be held.

Commentators widely acknowledged that Rudd had the better of the 90 minute proceedings over the 68-year-old prime minister.

Howard, who has won four consecutive elections, accused Rudd of being a pessimist with old ideas.

He said Rudd could not be trusted to manage Australia's economy because the Labor leader had voted against all of the government's key reforms.

"Mr Rudd is an election-eve convert to responsible economic management, because he knows he has to persuade the Australian people that he would balance the books and be a sensible manager of money," Howard said.

The latest opinion polls have Rudd ahead of Howard by 54 per cent to 46 per cent.

Source: Agencies