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Britain ready to lead Afghan force

LONDON, England -- UK Prime Minister Tony Blair has told parliament that Britain is prepared "in principle" to lead an international stabilisation force in Afghanistan.

Blair said the British contingent of that force was likely to be between 1,000 and 1,500 troops although the figures had not been finalised.

U.N. authorisation for the mission was expected "late this week" and the lead elements were expected on the ground "quickly," Blair told the House of Commons.

He said that several nations had indicated they were willing to contribute troops, including a number of EU countries, Canada, Australia, Argentina, Jordan and New Zealand.

U.S. raises flag over embassy in Kabul 
Is Tony Blair's offer of 1,000-1,500 British troops to head a peace force in Afghanistan a sufficient response?

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Blair said there was an urgent need to ensure "we play our part in securing the peace" in Afghanistan

U.S. officials said Monday that the first components of an international peacekeeping force were expected to be operational in the Afghan capital, Kabul, by Saturday.

Speaking to reporters in the city, U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan James Dobbins said that parts of the security force should be in place by the time Afghanistan's interim government takes power on December 22.

"I anticipate that at least lead elements of it will be here," Dobbins said.

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"There will be advance elements of the force that should be here by the 22nd."

A spokesman for British Prime Minister Tony Blair said: "I don't think anyone is expecting the totality of any force to have their boots on the ground by that point," the spokesman told reporters.

"But that is not to say that there may not be forces in Kabul by then."

Britain had indicated that it would be willing to lead the international peacekeeping force, expected to include troops from European members and also the Muslim nations of Turkey and Jordan.

However, the number of peacekeeping troops to be sent to Afghanistan has not been finalized.

Dobbins declined to say how many troops would be involved but hinted that the number would not be dramatically high.

"I think the number for Kabul is not going to be a very large number," he said,

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said on Sunday he expected the number to be between 3,000 and 5,000.

Interim Prime Minister Hamid Karzai and defense minister General Mohammad Fahim have said that they are willing to establish a mutually acceptable arrangement for the force.

Talks continue

Meanwhile, a British army general continued to meet key figures in Kabul's interim authority on Monday to discuss the peacekeeping force.

Dobbins (R) with interim foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah
Dobbins (R) with interim foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah  

Major General John McColl met with Karzai on Sunday and is leading a team of 12 officials to work out the size of the peacekeeping team and its relationship with the interim government.

Reading from a statement, the general said he was "heading up a reconnaissance and planning team that includes representatives from some countries at the original meeting, specifically France, Canada and Italy."

"It's a short visit and my intention is to ensure a meeting of minds with some of the key representatives from the future interim administration, but I would stress that at this stage no firm decisions have been made," he said.

The west and Afghanistan have been at odds over the size of any peacekeeping force.

Fahim has said that no more than 3,000 troops were needed but other contributors have been putting potential numbers at about 8,000.

U.S. role

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell has indicated that some U.S. personnel currently stationed in Afghanistan will stay in the country in a peacekeeping role once an international security force was in place.

"U.S. troops will stay there until they have accomplished their mission, which is to defeat the Taliban, well under way; destroy al-Qaida, well under way; and do everything they can to find Osama bin Laden," Powell said Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press."

The U.S. also says it is ready to help rebuild Afghanistan and that the international community would not repeat the mistakes of the past by neglecting the country.

As the American flag was raised at the old U.S. Embassy in Kabul on Monday, Dobbins said the U.S. would play a major role in the future of Afghanistan.

"It demonstrates that we're determined to play a continuing diplomatic, political and economic role here in assisting Afghanistan to make the transition from war to peace," Dobbins said.


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