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Canada adamant about Afghanistan pullout; France sounds supportive note

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper on Tuesday rebuffed an American suggestion that he keep some of his country’s troops in Afghanistan after a scheduled pullout next year, reasserting that only civilians would continue in the mission.

Harper reiterated his stand during a 20-minute meeting in Ottawa with visiting Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Harper made it clear that “Canada will remain engaged, but this is going to be a civilian-based mission,” said Dimitri Soudas, his press secretary.

The war in Afghanistan was also on the agenda at a White House meeting between President Obama and French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Administration officials said Obama did not press Sarkozy to add troops to the nearly 4,000 France now has there. But Sarkozy offered backing for the U.S. leader, saying, “We support President Obama’s strategy.”

The meetings with two leading members of the international alliance in Afghanistan took place as the United States is in the process of sending 30,000 additional troops to the country.

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U.S. officials have often praised the efforts of Canada’s 2,800 troops, which have overseen Afghanistan’s dangerous Kandahar province. But Canada’s force has suffered 140 deaths, and domestic pressure has grown for the military to return home.

Clinton did not ask Harper to keep troops deployed, a State Department official said. But in a nationally broadcast interview Monday with Canadian television, she outlined a Canadian role for training missions or logistics.

“There’s all kinds of things that are possible,” said Clinton, who was in Canada for other international meetings. “We would obviously like to see some form of support continue, because the Canadian forces have a great reputation.”

The Netherlands, which has nearly 2,000 troops in Afghanistan, plans to pull out this year. About 87,000 U.S. troops are now in Afghanistan. In addition, 42 other countries have a combined force of about 44,000 troops stationed in the country.

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Obama and Sarkozy spoke at a news conference after their meeting, touching on a variety of subjects.

Obama predicted that the U.S. and its European allies would be able to secure a fourth round of sanctions against Iran within weeks to try to discourage it from pressing ahead with its nuclear program. But he acknowledged that the group did not yet have unanimity at the United Nations.

Obama’s comments contrasted somewhat with those of subordinates, who have indicated that the West was making progress in convincing Russia and China to agree to sanctions.

Sarkozy voiced support for Obama’s efforts to halt Israeli construction in Jerusalem and the West Bank.

“I wish to express my solidarity . . . in condemning the settlement process,” he said. “The absence of peace in the Middle East is a problem for all of us.”

paul.richter@latimes.com


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