The U.S. Deputy Secretary of State, Richard Armitage, on September 11th — on the third anniversary of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington — began a week-long tour of five European countries: Norway, Latvia, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Poland. All are members of the "coalition of the willing" and in the face of rising security concerns, the U.S. is keen to see they remain so.
Well, all five countries that you mentioned were part of the so-called "coalition of the willing" that backed U.S. President George W. Bush's call for a preemptive war to topple the regime of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, which was then said to be developing and have access to weapons of mass destruction (WMD), such as nuclear warheads and biological weapons.
All five countries that Mr Armitage is traveling to this week have sent troops or humanitarian contingents into both Iraq and Afghanistan. The Czech Republic, for example, has sent a specialized anti-biological and chemical unit to Iraq and has been training police there; this country also contributed a field hospital.
So what was the main reason for Mr Armitage's visit to the Czech Republic?
I think it's safe to say that with the volatile security situation in both countries — but especially Iraq, with the hostage-taking and beheadings, and bomb attacks — Mr Armitage's European mini-tour is meant to make certain these coalition members are still "willing."
There were of course also strictly bilateral issues discussed. I understand that the U.S. has signed a letter of intent to buy one Czech 'Vera' radar system for training purposes and that more orders are likely to follow. The Vera system can, for example, pick-up U.S. stealth aircraft without being detected itself.
Also, the U.S. visa regime for the Czech Republic was a major topic. A bilateral working group from the U.S. will arrive in Prague on the 24th of September in that regard.
But it was mainly the Iraqi security situation was alluded to by Mr Armitage and his counterpart, the Czech Deputy Foreign Minister for Security, Jan Winkler, during a 15-minute press conference on Wednesday morning.
"[Mr Armitage] We would hope that the citizens would support the government and the government would support the concept of staying with the coalition of seeing this thing through successfully, but this is a decision that rests entirely with the Czech Republic ..."
"... [Mr Winkler] I'm sorry; we didn't discuss that in detail because just today the government is supposed to take a decision about some arrangements that will reflect the development of the security situation in Iraq."
The Bush administration doesn't want these countries to follow Spain's lead, for example, and announce an early pull-out or troops there.
The U.S. is looking to re-allocate billions of reconstruction dollars for Iraq and spend the money instead on security and other short-term needs. If the U.S. Congress agrees, that would mean about 3.5 billion dollars will be shifted away from long-term infrastructure projects and channeled instead into improving security, which includes creating jobs and increasing oil production.
And is there any further word on how Czech participation in Iraq might change?
Well, since taking office recently, new Defence Minister Karel Kuehnl has signalled that he would be in favour of an increased Czech presence in Iraq. I did have a chance to speak with Mr Winkler of the Czech foreign ministry, briefly, after the press conference, and asked him to elaborate on the Czech role in Iraq with regard to the changing security system there.
"We are very happy to see that both NATO and the EU proposal was to continue in training police, local security forces - that's what we've been doing there already for a year. We have 80 military police training in place and the government will either discuss either prolonging the mandate for this unit or to create some training programme here or in Jordan, or another place. That's why I was hesitant to tell, explicitly, what the government will decide."
While in Prague, Mr Armitage also paid a visit to the Czech branch of CEELI, the Central European and Eurasian Law Initiative, a U.S.-based interest group, which this month began training 50 Iraqi judges on basic principles of democratic justice. The CEELI institute will train some 200 judges here over the next two years with funding from the U.S, Britain, and the Czech Republic.
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