Defence minister proposes withdrawing Czech unit from Iraq

01-06-2004

The Czech defence minister, Miroslav Kostelka, surprised many on Monday when, on a brief visit to Iraq, he said he wanted the Czech unit serving in the southern city of Basra to return at the end of the year. Some members of the opposition have questioned the wisdom of such a pull-out, but the minister says it is simply a case of mission accomplished. Ian Willoughby has the story.

Czech unit in Iraq, photo: CTKCzech unit in Iraq, photo: CTK On a one-day visit to Iraq on Monday, Minister Kostelka said he would not be asking for an extension of the mandate of the Czech military police unit serving in the southern Iraqi city of Basra. If that proposal wins support in parliament, the 90 Czech military police officers there will be coming home for good at the end of the year. Mr Kostelka says the Czech unit's task was to provide instruction to members of the local security forces, and that mission has been accomplished.

"I won't be requesting an extension - our mission was to train several thousand Iraqi police officers and, above all, many instructors. And I think that they are now capable, or they will be capable by the end of the year, of training Iraqi police officers by themselves."

Miroslav Kostelka, photo: CTKMiroslav Kostelka, photo: CTK While the pull-out of some countries from Iraq - most notably Spain - has had considerable international repercussions, the proposed withdrawal of the small Czech unit has met with less controversy. However, the defence spokesman for the opposition Civic Democrats, Petr Necas, has questioned Minister Kostelka's plan.

"We are fully aware that the number of Czech military troops in Iraq hasn't had any kind of military reason, it's only about political signals. We would like to see the Czech Republic as a reliable partner and a reliable ally, and for this reason I cannot imagine any political step without deep consultation with our allies. So we really could lose international prestige as a reliable partner."

For its part, the Defence Ministry says the Czech Republic should concentrate on its missions in Kosovo and Afghanistan, and will put that proposal to parliament before the summer recess. It is possible for the Czech Republic to operate in three military theatres, but concentrating on two is more in line with the ongoing reform of the Czech Army, Minister Kostelka says.

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