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Afghan Tribal Leaders Back Long-term US Military Role

Tribal leaders in Afghanistan have endorsed President Hamid Karzai's plan to ask for long-term security ties with the United States.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai called more than a 1,000 tribal chiefs and elders to discuss his proposals Sunday at the presidential palace in Kabul.

The gathering was considered a key test of the president's ability to shape a national agenda, and then win over a largely skeptical audience from across the country.

President Karzai says he wants a broad "strategic partnership" with Washington, including closer political, economic and military ties.

Mr. Karzai's spokesman, Jawed Ludin, says the president won general support on Sunday for his plan.

"We are delighted that people, on the whole, are very positive about this, and I think that people are thinking, by and large, exactly the same line as we had expected," he said.

There are about 17,000 U.S. troops in the country fighting Taleban and al-Qaida insurgents. The U.S. military said two U.S. Marines were killed in a clash against insurgents Sunday in eastern Afghanistan.

American forces are also helping train the Afghan army and national police force.

During a visit in February, Senator John McCain called for permanent U.S bases in Afghanistan, and President Karzai has also expressed a desire for a more enduring U.S. military role.

During a joint press conference with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld last month, he outlined his view of the relationship. "A strategic security relationship that would enable Afghanistan to defend itself, continue to prosper [and] to stop the possibility of interferences in Afghanistan," said Mr. Rumsfeld.

Delegates at Sunday's meeting reportedly agreed on the need for greater U.S. aid and economic involvement, and also agreed on the need for U.S. forces to improve security in the countryside.

But the precise form of the U.S. military's long-term role in Afghanistan remains a matter of debate. Some Afghans say they support the current role, but stop short of embracing a permanent presence.

Washington has pointedly avoided comment on the issue. Mr. Rumsfeld has repeatedly stated the administration's commitment to Afghanistan, but has said nothing about establishing permanent bases in the country.

Afghan officials say Mr. Karzai will discuss his plans with President Bush during a visit to Washington next month. Representatives at Sunday's meeting reportedly asked Mr. Karzai to wait until after the September elections before making specific proposals.