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    Afghanistan key US ally: Eikenberry

    KABUL (PAN): Afghanistan is an important ally of America and President Hamid Karzai's recent meetings with top officials in Washington had strengthened bilateral ties between the two nations, the US ambassador said on Wednesday.

    The upcoming Peace Advisory Jirga, scheduled for May 29 in Kabul, was significant for bringing stability to the war-torn country, Ambassador Karl Eikenberry told a news conference here.

    He said US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would participate in the traditional assembly, in which 1,500 delegates would discuss the key issues facing the country in the context of Karzai's new peace strategy.

    Around 1,000 US soldiers had so far been killed in the landlocked country since the 2001 ouster of the Taliban regime, the former military commander said, adding additional American troops were deploying to Afghanistan to fight terrorism and militancy.

    He explained 15,000 extra US soldiers had already deployed to Afghanistan since December and the remaining would come over the next four months. The US has nearly 100,000 soldiers in Afghanistan within NATO-led International Security Assistance Force's framework.

    US consulates would start functioning in northern Balkh and western Herat provinces by the end of the current year, the ambassador said in response to a question.

    During their meeting at the White House last week, US President Barack Obama and his Afghan counterpart discussed a wide range of issues including peace and stability, economic development and the public health situation in Afghanistan.

    They also conferred on the need for progress on the civilian side, agricultural development, good governance, implementation of the Afghan constitution and respect for womens rights.

    Despite testy exchanges between Karzai and some top American officials before the president's trip to Washington, Eikenberry said Kabul-Washington relations had been strong over the past nine years. The Afghan leader's visit had helped in further cementing the ties, he added.

    frm/mud