The Associated Press – 2004-11-04 08:35:50
BUDAPEST, HUNGARY (November 3, 2004) — Hungary will withdraw its 300 non-combat troops from Iraq by March 31, the country’s new prime minister said Wednesday, contending that staying longer would be an “impossibility.”
“We are obliged to stay there until the (Iraqi) elections. To stay longer is an impossibility,” Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany said at a ceremony to mark the end of mandatory military service in Hungary. The Iraqi elections are due to be held by Jan. 31.
The former communist country, which joined the European Union in May, sent the troops as part of the US-led coalition, but the government has been under mounting pressure from citizens and opposition parties who oppose the soldiers’ presence. Recent polls show that about 60 percent of Hungarians wanted the government to withdraw the country’s troops from Iraq immediately.
The announcement was a symbolic blow to President Bush, who has struggled to keep the US-led multinational force from unraveling since Spain pulled out its 1,300 troops earlier this year.
In a telephone conversation with Bush last month, Gyurcsany said his government would “stress continuity in its foreign policy” and remain a “predictable, trustworthy and stable” partner of international cooperation.
The interim Iraqi government recently asked Hungary to maintain its troop presence for about another year. In a letter sent to Hungary about three weeks ago, Iraq thanked the country for its contributions so far and asked that the troops’ mission be extended by about a year “to help Iraq’s stabilization process,” government spokeswoman Boglar Laszlo said.
Concerns about Hungary’s security increased after the country was mentioned in a message attributed to al-Qaida as a terrorist target because of its alliance with the United States. “The threat to Hungary is no longer at its borders but often far away,” Gyurcsany said. “One of the most important conditions for creating order in Iraq lies ahead of us: the elections at the end of January. After that, the conditions for democratic order, peace and security can be created.”
Beginning March 31, “the existence of a stable democratic and safe Iraq has to be created by different means, above all political means. If Iraq is not safe, Hungary not safe,” he said.
Hungary has a transportation contingent of 300 troops in Iraq stationed in Hillah, south of Baghdad. Parliament last year authorized the mission until Dec. 31. One Hungarian soldier has died in Iraq, killed when a roadside bomb exploded by the water-carrying convoy he was guarding.
Gyurcsany, 43, who was elected in September, said last month he did not believe in pre-emptive war. Gyurcsany – a wealthy businessman who replaced ousted Prime Minister Peter Medgyessy at the end of September — also said the future of the Hungarian troops in Iraq was “one of the most important decisions” faced by his new government.
Defense Minister Ferenc Juhasz had said the government would await the outcome of the US presidential election before making a decision about Iraq. The Fidesz-Hungarian Civic Union, the main center-right opposition party whose support would have been critical in attaining the two-thirds majority in parliament required to extend the Iraqi mission, said it would not likely favor such a proposal.
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