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NATO readies to take over security in Afghanistan next year

KABUL, Afghanistan -- A NATO-led international force is set to expand and will be ready to assume responsibility for security across all of Afghanistan by the end of next year, freeing up many of the 17,600 American troops battling militants here, a NATO general said yesterday.

The announcement follows a surge in fighting between US-led forces and Taliban rebels before elections next month. The bloodshed has led the military to rush in an airborne infantry battalion of about 700 troops on standby in Fort Bragg, N.C.

Yesterday a roadside bomb exploded near a US military vehicle in eastern Afghanistan, killing an American service member and wounding another as well as an Afghan soldier, a US military statement said.

Washington has long urged NATO to move on a plan to expand its 10,000-strong force into Afghanistan's volatile south and east. ''We are in a position that we can take over the responsibility for all of Afghanistan in the course of the next year," said General Gerhard Back, who oversees the International Security Assistance Force mission from his base in Brunssum, the Netherlands.

He said he expects the deployment of extra NATO forces to relieve a ''substantial" number of troops from the US-led coalition, which also includes some 3,100 soldiers from 19 other nations.

Back said NATO troops would need ''more robust" rules of engagement, which govern when and how forces can engage insurgents.

He spoke to reporters after a ceremony marking the change of the command of ISAF, the NATO-led force, from a Turkish general to Lieutenant General Mauro Del Vecchio of Italy. The force is made up of troops from 36 nations.

ISAF already maintains security in the capital, Kabul, and the country's north and west. It plans to increase its size by an unspecified amount and take over from the US-led coalition in the violence-wracked south early next year, before gradually moving into the east. ISAF spokesman Riccardo Cristoni said most American troops who stay in Afghanistan after the North Atlantic Treaty Organization takes responsibility for security nationwide would come under NATO command.

US military spokeswoman Lieutenant Cindy Moore said commanders were still planning how many troops would remain next year.

The attack that killed a US service member yesterday occurred near a base at Urgun in Paktika province, which borders Pakistan. It came just over a week after two US service members were killed in separate attacks. The death brings to 174 the number of US troops killed in and around Afghanistan since Operation Enduring Freedom began in 2001.

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