Ahmadinejad criticises NATO troops, mocks Gates

Iran's outspoken president on Wednesday criticised Western troops as an obstacle to peace in Afghanistan and mocked the US defence secretary during their overlapping visits to the war-torn country.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, paying his first visit to Afghanistan since he and his Afghan counterpart Hamid Karzai were re-elected last year in controversial polls, took issue with the policies of arch-foe Washington.

"We do not see the presence of foreign military forces in Afghanistan as a solution for peace in Afghanistan," Ahmadinejad told a joint news conference with Karzai.

The United States has spearheaded a major troop surge in a last-ditch bid to end an eight-year Taliban-led insurgency against more than 120,000 NATO and US-led troops supporting Karzai's government.

"Our policy is full support for the Afghan people and Afghan government and reconstruction of Afghanistan and we will continue this support in the future," said the visiting Iranian leader.

His visit overlapped with one by US Defence Secretary Robert Gates, in Afghanistan to review the surge of US and NATO troops set to bring their numbers to 150,000 by August.

Ahmadinejad has repeatedly called on US-led troops to leave Afghanistan, which has close ethnic and religious ties to Iran, while US officials have long accused Iran of maintaining links to Islamist insurgents in Afghanistan.

Asked about Gates's accusation Iran of playing a double game in the war-torn country, Ahmadinejad responded: "The question is what are you (Gates and troops) doing here in this region?"

"You are 12,000 kilometres (7,500 miles) away on the other side of the world. You are on the other side of the world. What are you doing here? This is a serious question," he added.

On the third day of his latest visit to Afghanistan, Gates on Wednesday toured a training centre for Afghan soldiers on the outskirts of the capital.

"We think Afghanistan should have good relations with all of its neighbours. But we also want all of Afghanistan's neighbors to play an up front game when dealing with the government of Afghanistan," Gates told reporters.

Despite their rivalry, Washington and Tehran are both sworn enemies of the extremist Sunni Muslim Taliban militia which ruled in Kabul from 1996, before being overthrown in the 2001 US-led invasion.

Karzai is expected to arrive in Pakistan later Wednesday for two days' of talks with Pakistani leaders to bolster relations between the two neighbours battling Taliban militants.

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband was to deliver a speech in the United States on Wednesday pressing the Afghan government to step up efforts for a political solution with the Taliban to bring the conflict to an end.

Another car bomb attack killed five Afghan security personnel at a security post in Paktika, the eastern province which has become a flashpoint for a Taliban insurgency and which borders militant strongholds in Pakistan.

Militants fired eight rockets at the post after the bombing, and it was not immediately clear if the number of casualties would increase, provincial police chief Dawlat Khan Zadran told AFP.

Late Tuesday a suicide bomber targeted a NATO-Afghan border police compound in neighbouring Khost province, killing two foreign soldiers in an attack claimed by the Taliban.

Touring Camp Blackhorse, Gates said that only Afghans could provide "long-term security" and briefly addressed the troops, who stumbled at times during their demonstrations for the visiting dignitary.

"This is your country and ultimately your fight to win," Gates told the newly trained troops standing to attention. "We will be your steadfast brothers in arms and friends."

The United States and NATO allies view building up Afghan security forces as crucial to clearing the way for an eventual exit of coalition forces, with US President Barack Obama vowing to start a drawdown in mid-2011.

NATO Supreme Allied Commander Admiral James Stavridis said Tuesday that the United States wanted countries in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation to contribute 1,278 trainers but so far they have offered only 541.

Source: AFP

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