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OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canada's minority government, risking an early election, plans a parliamentary vote of confidence late next month on prolonging its military mission in Afghanistan, officials said on Wednesday.
The three opposition parties -- which between them control Parliament -- reject the idea of an extension. Unless the two sides can reach a compromise, the Conservative government will fall after just over two years in power.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper wants the 2,500 Canadian soldiers in southern Afghanistan to stay longer but says he will pull them out on schedule early next year unless NATO sends in 1,000 extra troops.
Debate is set to start next week and a vote on the motion would take place in late March if Ottawa believed NATO allies were ready to provide additional military help, Harper officials said.
"This government believes this to be a very serious matter and one of great importance to Canada," said Harper spokeswoman Carolyn Stewart-Olsen.
If the motion is to pass, Harper will need the support of the official opposition Liberals. The two other parties in Parliament are opposed to extending the mission.
Liberal leader Stephane Dion said Harper had told him on Tuesday that the vote would be matter of confidence.
"He made that very clear," he told reporters.
The Liberals say they will only agree to an extension if Canadian soldiers abandon combat missions and focus on training Afghan troops. Canada's top soldier said last week that this was not a feasible option, given the number of Taliban militants in southern Afghanistan.
"You need to be prepared to fight, but a combat role is when you are proactively seeking engagement with the enemy," said Dion, adding that he would be proposing a number of amendments to the government's motion.
A vote in late March would come just before Harper is due to attend a NATO summit in Bucharest likely to be dominated by the question of troops levels in Afghanistan.
Canada has lost 78 soldiers in Afghanistan so far and Harper is increasingly irritated at what he sees as the reluctance of NATO allies to contribute enough soldiers to the international mission in southern Afghanistan.
Exact details of what he is proposing will become clearer when the motion is introduced on Thursday.
Stewart-Olsen said the motion would be based on the recent report by an independent panel, which said last month that Canada should stay longer only if NATO provided extra troops and Ottawa procured more helicopters and unmanned aerial surveillance vehicles.
The Liberals are split over the issue and some legislators would likely back Harper if given the chance. Dion said he would order his members to stick to the party line.
"We have time and are willing to be patient while the Liberals sort out their position," said Stewart-Olsen.
Opinion polls show the most likely result of an election now would be another Conservative minority government. Harper won power in late January 2006.
The left-leaning New Democratic Party wants the troops out immediately, while the separatist Bloc Quebecois opposes the idea of an extension under any circumstances.
Additional reporting by Randall Palmer