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Afghan still seeks U.S. peace role

But Washington isn’t participating, White House says

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WASHINGTON — Afghan leader Hamid Karzai said Monday he would welcome U.S. participation in the multinational peacekeeping force in his nation and that most Afghans would like to see the security forces expand outside Kabul, the capital.

The White House reaffirmed President Bush's position that U.S. forces will not take part in the peacekeeping mission.

"The president's philosophy is that the United States should not be overly deployed in peacekeeping around the world. The purpose of the troops should be to fight wars," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said.

At a ceremony outside Afghanistan's embassy in Washington — which is undergoing renovation after being closed for years — Karzai thanked the United States for its help and called it a thrilling moment as the nation's black-red-and-green flag was raised once again.

"Let's hope that this flag will be there forever, and that the partnership between the American and Afghan people will be forever," the prime minister said.

Appearing on NBC's "Today" show, Karzai appealed for a broad mandate for the peacekeeping mission. "The people I've met over the past month, almost all of them have asked me to ask the international security forces to go to the other parts of the country," he said.

"If we need them at any time to be there in the rest of the country, we will ask for it," he said. "And if the United States can be there as part of that multinational force, it's welcome."

Afghan officials said he was expected to touch on that and other issues Monday in a visit with Bush at the White House to seek a continuing U.S. commitment to help restore the peace in his country.

Karzai arrived here Sunday afternoon, the first Afghan leader to visit Washington in 39 years.

Before leaving for the United States, Karzai told Afghan television that he would use the trip to push for expansion of the multinational peacekeeping force into the rest of Afghanistan. Afghan officials believe troops are needed in the countryside to deal with regional warlords and armed gangs. They also have indicated they want American troops to participate.

On Sunday, the Afghan prime minister stood before thousands of Afghan-Americans, alternating between his country's two main languages, Pashtu and Dari, rarely displaying his mastery of English.

During his 75-minute appearance, including 30 minutes of answering questions, Karzai never mentioned the U.S. role in making possible his improbable rise to power five weeks ago, ending more than five years of Taliban rule. He will be a guest of honor when Bush delivers his State of the Union address Tuesday night.

The scene Sunday night was a basketball gymnasium at Georgetown University. Above him as he spoke were an American flag and a Christian cross, symbolic of Georgetown's Roman Catholic affiliation.

His audience reflected the hope that the changed circumstances have given their homeland, frequently interrupting Karzai's words with applause and laughter.

"From difficult times, we will live in positive times, productive times," Karzai said.

Near the end of his appearance, Karzai said in response to a question that he could favor the punishment, prescribed under Islamic law, of cutting the hands off thieves.

He acknowledged that he is not an expert on the issue and that the law is subject to differing interpretations. He added he would favor such punishment only when Afghanistan ceases to be a poverty-stricken country.