* Germany rejects troop increase before London conference
* Obama seeking over 5,000 additional soldiers from allies
* Defence minister admits air strike was “inappropriate”
(Adds quotes, background)
By Noah Barkin
BERLIN, Dec 3 (Reuters) - Germany’s lower house of parliament voted on Thursday to extend by one year a mandate that allows the government to deploy up to 4,500 troops in Afghanistan as part of the NATO mission there.
Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government has suggested it could raise troop levels after a conference in London next month which is expected to set out a strategy for transferring security responsibilities to Afghan authorities.
But the existing parliamentary mandate was due to expire later this month and Merkel’s new centre-right coalition opted to extend it in its current form rather than boost troop levels immediately.
“Our mission in Afghanistan not only serves the people in Afghanistan but also our own security,” Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle told parliament before the vote.
The extension was backed by 445 members of the Bundestag, with 105 voting against and 43 abstaining.
U.S. President Barack Obama announced on Tuesday that he planned to send an additional 30,000 U.S. soldiers to Afghanistan to try to stem violence that has reached its deadliest levels since the ousting of the Taliban in 2001.
Washington is asking NATO allies to send at least 5,000 more troops, raising the pressure on Germany, which with 4,400 soldiers in the country is the third-largest force contributor after the United States and Britain.
Polls show a majority of the public oppose the presence of German troops in Afghanistan and roughly two-thirds would like to see them withdrawn in the next few years.
Doubts about the conflict have grown in the aftermath of a German-ordered air attack in September near the northern Afghan city of Kunduz which the Afghan government has said killed 30 civilians as well as 69 insurgents.
Merkel’s former defence minister Franz Josef Jung was forced to resign his new post of labour minister last week over accusations he covered up the civilian toll of the strike in the weeks before Germany’s Sept. 27 federal election.
His successor as defence minister, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, acknowledged in the Bundestag on Thursday that the strike had been “inappropriate”.
“The air strike exposed the failures of the government in communicating the nature of the conflict,” said Henning Riecke of the German Council on Foreign Relations.
Members of the Bundestag have agreed to launch a parliamentary inquiry into what members of Merkel’s previous government of conservatives and Social Democrats (SPD) knew about the strike.
The inquiry is a headache for Merkel as she prepares to sell the idea of raising troop levels to the public and an increasingly sceptical parliament.
(Writing by Noah Barkin)
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