Retired Marine Corps Commandant P.X. Kelley, the first defense witness at Oliver North's trial, testified Monday that White House officials repeatedly asked to keep North at his National Security Council job.

Lawyers for the ex-White House aide, forced to open his defense against 12 Iran-Contra charges without President Reagan, instead began by focusing on North's character.North contends Reagan is the witness who can testify that the retired Marine officer's actions in the foreign policy scandal were approved.

Kelley, who retired as a four-star general and the top Marine officer in June 1987, told the jury White House officials intervened on several occasions to keep North at the NSC.

CIA Director William Casey, U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick and national security adviser Robert McFarlane "told me about the good job Lieutenant Colonel North was doing and said they were hoping the Marine Corps would see fit to extend his duties" at the White House, Kelley testified.

Between 1984 and 1986, North's tour of duty at the White House was extended three times, even though Kelley said he was against that course, fearing it would hurt North's career.

The defense later called Texas heiress Ellen Garwood to testify North never directly solicited contributions from her for Nicaraguan rebels. Garwood donated more than $2 million to a private organization that later funneled the money to the rebels.

North's lawyer, Brendan Sullivan, has said the defense needs between three and nine days to present its case, indicating North may not take the stand.