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OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canada's minority government and the main opposition party signaled their desire on Tuesday to find a compromise position on the country's military mission in Afghanistan, easing the likelihood of an election over the divisive issue.
The ruling Conservatives have said that if Parliament does not extend the mission in the southern city of Kandahar, currently scheduled to end in February 2009, the government would fall and Canada would head into an election.
But Prime Minister Stephen Harper said on Tuesday that the opposition Liberals and the Conservatives now fundamentally agree that the 2,500 troops should stay until 2011, and both he and Liberal leader Stephane Dion talked about finding common ground.
"We are willing in good faith to explore ... if there is a common ground with our motion that may allow an agreement," Dion said after presenting a series of proposals that would replace a government motion on the Afghan mission.
The Liberals plan would keep the troops in Afghanistan until July 2011, but they would concentrate on training Afghan forces and providing security for reconstruction and development.
The idea is to wind down the active combat mission against the Taliban, though this language was absent from the Liberal text.
The mission in Kandahar is one of the most controversial topics in domestic politics. Polls regularly show that about half of Canadians want the soldiers back on schedule.
Less than half an hour after Dion finished speaking, Harper told reporters he welcomed the Liberal Party's ideas.
"The government's objective is to seek common ground here so we will look at these in great detail, with the express intention of trying to find common ground," he said.
"But I think this is a positive development and one that I think is moving the debate in the right direction."
The Conservatives were elected with a minority of seats in the House of Commons in January 2006, defeating the Liberals.
They say they would like to govern until the fixed election date of October 2009, but they have set a series of confidence votes for the next several weeks -- over a crime bill, Afghanistan and the budget -- which could force an election before then.
The Conservatives, who need the support of at least one opposition party in the House to pass legislation, survived one confidence test on Tuesday afternoon, a motion urging the Liberal-dominated Senate to pass a crime bill by March 1.
Justice Minister Rob Nicholson said that if the Senate does not pass the legislation by then, he would recommend that Harper treat this as a matter of confidence too. The motion is not binding on the appointed Senate.
Polls show the most likely result of an election now would be another fragile minority Conservative government, though some polls have suggested the Liberals could win a minority.
Among remaining differences between the two parties is that the Conservatives had not wanted to decree an end to Canada's military engagement in 2011, while the Liberals want 2011 to be a firm deadline to prevent a "never-ending" war.
The Conservatives and Liberals agree that the soldiers should stay only if the NATO alliance sends more troops to Kandahar and if Canada is able to secure medium-lift helicopters as well as unmanned aerial vehicles.
Editing by Rob Wilson