European Union leaders agreed Friday to dispatch 3,000 to 4,000 troops to join an international peacekeeping force in Afghanistan. It was, said Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel, "a significant precedent" for the 15-nation bloc.

Michel, whose country currently holds the EU presidency, said the Union is waiting for the United Nations to decide on a mandate for the force, but once it is formed, it will involve troops from all 15 EU countries, led by Britain.

Other, non-European nations are also expected to contribute. Canada, the Netherlands and Bangladesh are among those countries expected to be involved, and Argentina has also offered troops, diplomats said.

"This force is not there to make war, it is there to insure stability," stressed Javier Solana, the EU's foreign and security policy chief.

The U.N. Security Council is still discussing the mechanics of such a force, and a resolution authorizing its deployment was not expected to be adopted for several days.

The council cannot act until Britain formally announces that it will lead the force. A small British reconnaissance party, headed by Maj. Gen. John McColl, was to fly to Kabul this weekend to assess the mission, the Ministry of Defense said.

The British are trying to create a coalition and work out how it will interact with the U.S.-led force fighting remnants of the Taliban and hunting for accused terrorist mastermind Usama bin Laden. They also want Afghan approval for the deployment.

British U.N. Ambassador Jeremy Greenstock has said a small force could get to the capital, Kabul, by the time the interim government takes power on Dec. 22 if the Security Council adopt a resolution by the middle of next week.

The initial force could grow to about 5,000 troops, depending on what the Afghans and Brahimi recommend, the diplomats said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The EU leaders, gathered in a Brussels suburb for their two-day winter summit, also struggled to reach another milestone — a declaration that the Union's planned rapid-reaction corps was operational. Greece remained a holdout.

The EU wants to be able to field a military force of up to 60,000 on humanitarian and peacekeeping missions in which NATO declines to participate, but using NATO assets, such as planning, communications, intelligence and transport. The force should be able to deploy on such missions on two months notice and maintain itself in the field for up to a year, starting in 2003.

The proposal to declare the EU force operational as of Jan. 1 does not mean the entire 60,000-member force will be ready, rather that the Union is capable of undertaking small operations now, sending a limited number of troops on undemanding missions for a short time.

EU leaders believe declaring the force operational is an important to prove the EU force is more than just a theory, even if it has only a limited capability at first.