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UK's new foreign minister to visit Washington

By Adrian Croft

LONDON (Reuters) - British Foreign Secretary William Hague is expected to hold talks with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Washington on Friday, his first trip since the new government took power, officials said on Wednesday.

Hague was named foreign minister after the center-right Conservatives and the smaller Liberal Democrats agreed on Wednesday to form Britain's first coalition government since 1945 following last week's inconclusive election.

Hague, a senior Conservative, said his priorities included the conflict in Afghanistan, where Britain has 9,500 troops, and the dispute with Iran over its nuclear program.

"Iran's behavior in recent years has been unacceptable to the great majority of the international community and that will be one of the subjects of my first international visit which will be to see Hillary Clinton later this week," he said.

"We have spoken. Mrs Clinton was my first caller on the telephone this afternoon," he told Sky News.

The United States and its allies, including Britain, are pushing for new sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program, which they believe is aimed at developing nuclear weapons. Iran denies it.

A Foreign Office spokesman said Clinton had invited Hague to Washington. "Subject to travel arrangements we hope that will happen on Friday," he said. "They've got many issues to discuss; Afghanistan, Iran, Middle East."

SOLID, NOT SLAVISH

Britain is one of the United States' closest allies. The Conservatives, the senior partner in the coalition, are traditionally pro-American but said repeatedly during the election campaign that their relationship with the United States would be "solid but not slavish."

Their stance was a response to a widespread perception among Britons that the former Labour government was too unquestioning in following the U.S. lead during the Iraq war.

U.S. President Barack Obama said on Wednesday he had spoken to new Prime Minister David Cameron who had reaffirmed Britain's commitment to the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan.

Mark Sedwill, NATO's senior civilian representative in Afghanistan, indicated he did not expect any sharp change in British policy on Afghanistan under the new government.

"One of the things that's striking from the NATO perspective ... is the degree of consensus across the political spectrum," he said, speaking at the Chatham House think tank in London.

Cameron said during the election campaign he would not set an artificial deadline for withdrawing British troops from Afghanistan but said they should start coming home in the next five years. The LibDems said a successful strategy should allow British troops to come home in the next five years.

Sedwill, a former British ambassador to Afghanistan, said: "If you read carefully the (parties') statements, they made clear that it must depend on conditions."

He said the focus of NATO forces would shift from front-line operations to training and supporting Afghan forces and he hoped Britain would continue to play an active role in those areas.

(Additional reporting by Tim Castle; Editing by Louise Ireland)

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