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Afghanistan Says Foreign Fighters Coming From Iraq

Afghan leaders say foreign fighters are boosting the Taliban ranks
KABUL (Reuters) -- Foreign militants are flooding from Iraq into Afghanistan to join Taliban insurgents battling Afghan and international troops, the Afghan defense minister has said.

Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak said there were about 15,000 Taliban fighters in Afghanistan but their numbers were being swelled by foreign insurgents moving in from Iraq, where violence has fallen after a U.S. troop "surge" and other measures.

"Since last year, as the result of the success of the surge in Iraq, there has been a flow of foreign terrorists into Afghanistan," Wardak told a news conference. "There have been 2008, and in some of these engagements, actually 60 percent of the total force which we have encountered were foreign fighters," he said.

Wardak was speaking after he and Afghan President Hamid Karzai held talks with NATO's supreme allied commander for Europe, U.S. General John Craddock.

There was a 33 percent rise in insurgent attacks in Afghanistan in 2008, according to NATO-led forces.

Violence is expected to rise further in 2009 as Washington prepares to send up to 25,000 more troops into new areas of the southern Pashtun heartlands.

The talks focused on training and equipping the Afghan army, which the U.S. military aims to increase from some 80,000 troops now to 134,000 in 2012, as well as the planned deployment of the extra U.S. soldiers and ways to reduce civilians casualties, Wardak said.

U.S. President Barack Obama is expected as early as this week to approve plans to send up to 17,000 more combat troops to Afghanistan to add to the 36,000 American soldiers already battling Taliban insurgents in the country.

The additional U.S. forces will focus on hitting militant communication lines and their cross-border infiltration into Afghanistan from Pakistan. The extra troops will reduce reliance on air strikes, cutting civilian deaths, Wardak said.

Civilian casualties caused by international forces have eroded support for Karzai and the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan more than seven years since the Taliban's removal.

More than 2,100 civilians were killed in Afghanistan in 2008, the United Nations said on February 3, more than a third of them by Afghan and international troops.

Wardak said the issue had been a source of tension with the
foreign troops.

Criticism Of Allies

For his part, Karzai renewed criticism of U.S. and NATO-led forces on January 4, and said he was determined his government would take a stronger role in the deployment and work of foreign troops.

In January, Karzai's government presented a draft proposal to NATO with a list of measures aimed at preventing civilian casualties, including a demand that arrests of all Afghan nationals be made by Afghan security forces only and that there be "high-level" co-ordination of air strikes.

"Our demands are clear and they are that house searches of Afghans, arrests of Afghans and civilian casualties must cease. And they [U.S. and NATO countries] are naturally putting on pressure to make us silent and retract from this claim. This is not possible," Karzai said.

Karzai, facing elections in August, has repeatedly called for an end to civilian casualties caused by foreign troops, while Western leaders constantly call for "good governance" -- implied criticism of Karzai's ability to rule effectively.

Karzai has lost much domestic support because of his perceived closeness to the United States and because many voters believe he has largely failed to curb corruption.