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Powell suggests Muslim coalition in Kabul

Secretary of State Colin Powell said Monday that Taliban forces were close to collapse across a broad swath of northern Afghanistan and that it might soon be necessary to send in an international "coalition of the willing" led by soldiers from Muslim nations to secure the capital, Kabul, and prepare the ground for an interim government.

"There is a general deterioration of the Taliban military position _ I wouldn't call it a collapse yet _ but a serious deterioration," Powell said. "Once you start something like this, it tends to start rolling, and they can't stop it."

In an interview, Powell said Turkey, Bangladesh and Indonesia, whose populations are predominantly Muslim, have offered forces for a peacekeeping operation that would buttress a "bridging political structure" under U.N. control.

He excluded the deployment of Americans in this force, saying it would be better to have Muslim countries "than one of the big-power nations coming in to do it."

The secretary indicated that President Bush and his senior advisers had marshaled the administration's contingency planning this weekend around how to employ such a force with a U.N. presence until a broad-based group of Afghan leaders could be assembled.

"Things are moving much more rapidly now than we had anticipated just a week ago," Powell said, adding that help from U.S. Special Forces on the ground was paying off.

"We've got a first-world air force connected to a fourth-world army _ B-1 bombers and guys on horses," he said of the Northern Alliance, "and what we have done in the last five weeks is sort of connect those two."

A still critical factor is the solid lock of Taliban forces on southern Afghanistan, and the secretary expressed frustration over the failure thus far to mobilize a rebellion or orchestrate defections of prominent local leaders in the region, where the majority Pashtuns have mostly refused to break with the Taliban.

The proposal for the large-scale intervention of foreign forces was the centerpiece of debates Monday in the U.N. Security Council and among delegates from the six nations that border Afghanistan, plus the United States and Russia. This so-called Six-Plus-Two Group condemned terrorism and endorsed international efforts to fight terrorism, "in keeping with the charter of the United Nations."

"As things are moving very fast, we need to bring the political aspects in line with the military development on the ground," Secretary-General Kofi Annan told reporters after a closed-door confer ence where Powell was said to have urged great speed in intervention planning.

Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N. envoy working to galvanize the Afghan opposition to the Taliban, emerged from the conference to say, "We are going to try as soon as possible to get hopefully a representative sample of the Afghan population together and see what kind of interim arrangements we can work together for Kabul."

Brahimi was to submit a paper with ideas on the country's future to the U.N. Security Council, a 15-member group that includes permanent members Russia, China and the United States.

France and Britain, the other two permanent council members, are drafting a Security Council resolution to hasten the process of setting up a government to replace the Taliban regime. It is expected to be adopted this week.

French President Jacques Chirac said it would be "very close" to a French proposal calling for a U.N.-backed transitional administration with the involvement of the former king of Afghanistan.

The 87-year-old former monarch, Mohammad Zaher Shah, who has lived in exile for 28 years, is viewed as the most likely rallying figure for a new government. Brahimi stopped in Rome to see him on his way back to New York.

Veteran U.S. diplomat James F. Dobbins, the Bush administration's top official in helping to fashion a post-Taliban regime, was due to leave late Monday on a trip to Europe and central Asia to consult with government leaders and insurgent Afghan groups.

_ Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.