Bush welcomes Karzai but snubs plea for peace-keepers

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The Independent US

The Bush administration rolled out the red carpet for Afghanistan's interim leader Hamid Karzai yesterday – but brushed aside his call for US troops to play a long-term role in an international force to keep the fragile peace in his devastated country.

Mr Karzai said US participation in a peacekeeping force would be more than welcome. He is the first Afghan head of state or government to visit Washington since John Kennedy played host to King Zahir Shah in September 1963.

But even as he was presiding over a ceremony to reopen Afghanistan's embassy, Ari Fleischer, President George Bush's spokesman, was dismissing the idea of US peacekeepers.

Mr Fleischer said the US was totally committed to the security of Afghanistan, "but the use of America's combat troops is a separate matter, and the President is unequivocal: the purpose of America's military is to fight and win wars".

Mr Karzai held talks at the White House with Mr Bush, the high point of a crowded schedule which included meetings with the Vice-president Richard Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, the Defence Secretary. He will also be guest of honour in the House chamber on Capitol Hill tonight when Mr Bush delivers his State of the Union message, the greatest setpiece occasion of the US political year.

Despite complaints within Afghanistan about the continuing US bombing and unease about civilian casualties, Mr Karzai underlined his support for the campaign, telling The Washington Post that "the war will go on relentlessly".

His main worry is that with al-Qa'ida and the Taliban largely rooted out of Afghanistan, the US might turn its back on the country as it did after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, with such disastrous consequences.