Macedonia ups Iraq force to boost NATO credentials

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SKOPJE, Nov 2 (Reuters) NATO membership candidate Macedonia will almost double its 44-man force in Iraq soon, ahead of an expected invitation to join the alliance next year, officials said today.

''This decision adds to the already stated fact that Macedonia is becoming a more visible exporter of stability,'' Foreign Minister Antonio Milososki said after announcing that the troop number would rise to 80.

''We are glad that as a country aspiring to NATO membership, we can show that even as a candiate, we are ready to share the responsibility in solidarity with our NATO partners.'' The decision will come into force after it is approved by parliament, where the government enjoys a firm majority. To bolster its membership bid Macedonia has contributed soldiers to the NATO-led mission in Afghanistan, as well as to the European Union-led peacekeeping force in Bosnia.

It is also keen to play down fears of instability, as the European Union has already spoken out against growing signs of tension between the authorities and the country's large ethnic Albanian minority.

An EU source told Reuters this week that the European Commission would not recommend opening membership talks with Macedonia in its report next week because of the political problems, including lack of dialogue and stalled reforms.

REUTERS AM KP2141

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