Slovak troops on move around globe

PRIME Minister Robert Fico has fulfilled his June 2006 campaign promise to bring Slovak troops home from Iraq, even though the process took a bit longer than the immediate withdrawal that he had originally promised.

PRIME Minister Robert Fico has fulfilled his June 2006 campaign promise to bring Slovak troops home from Iraq, even though the process took a bit longer than the immediate withdrawal that he had originally promised.

The Slovak engineers unit, which spent a total 1,304 days in Iraq, was deployed there by the previous Mikuláš Dzurinda government, which had always been a close ally of the US.

When the troops arrived back in the Slovak Republic on February 25, Fico made use of the occasion to declare that he had kept his promise and to show that he still stands behind his opinion that the presence of Slovak troops in Iraq was ungrounded and that the war was fundamentally wrong.

"My belief that the war in Iraq was wrong has not changed. I am sure that in the future, Slovakia will only participate in foreign missions that have received a full UN mandate," Fico said.

However, the PM has not managed to convince all his critics.

"His statement lacks elementary logic," said Ivo Samson, an analyst with the Slovak foreign policy association.

"If this is an unjust war, then the UN's Security Council, which provided a mandate to the multinational forces in several resolutions, is unjust as well. On the basis of a resolution #1,546, Slovakia, as a non-permanent member of the council, also voted for the one-year prolongation of this mandate last November. This prolongation came due to an official request submitted by the Iraqi government, whose legitimacy has not been doubted by anyone since the 2005 elections," Samson told The Slovak Spectator.

At the same time, on February 28, the government approved the transfer of 57 Slovak soldiers in Afghanistan from Kabul to the more dangerous Kandahar in the south of the country, thus continuing Slovakia's involvement in US-led missions in the area.

Samson thinks that the deployment of troops to Kandahar is "proof of the inconsistency of [the current government's] arguments for the Iraq situation".

"[In Afghanistan] there is a war that also received a UN mandate only additionally, and not originally, and should therefore also be considered to be unjust. However, the Slovak citizens don't feel so strongly about it because the intensity of the situation and the number of victims is not as high as it was in Iraq and also because it has never been seen to be so controversial by our western allies, unlike the war in Iraq," said Samson.

"However, the principle of both operations is identical," he concluded.

The Fico government confirmed their decision to withdraw the unit on October 18, 2006, arguing that the Slovak troops were not being used effectively and that they had not been fully carrying out the mandate with which they had been sent to Iraq.

One of the coalition partners, Ján Slota, the head of the ruling Slovak National Party, even described the unit's activities in Iraq as mere "fooling around".

Within the ruling coalition, it was mainly The Movement for a Democratic Slovakia who stood up in defence of the soldiers.

According to the party's deputy chairman Milan Urbáni "every instance of Slovak participation [in international missions] is meaningful".

"The derogation [of the soldier's activities] is not fair towards the people who have done a lot of work there and put their lives at stake, and it's also not fair towards our allies in NATO and EU," said Urbáni.

The negative comments were also not taken very well by the soldiers themselves, who insisted that their operations should not be debased and that they were doing anything but lazing around.

The unit was very active in post-war reconstruction efforts with the military engineers clearing land mines, defusing ammunition, and searching for weapons using hand-held detectors, Božena mine-clearing equipment, and special mine-clearing tanks.

"We are sorry that some politicians said that we had nothing to do," unit commander Ľubomír Gardlo told the press on returning back to Slovakia. "In less than five months we defused 57 tons of explosives, cleared 70,000 square metres of mines, and trained 18 Iraqi bomb disposal troops," he said.

His group was the last Slovak unit to leave Iraq. The soldiers started their tour of duty six months ago.

According to Gardlo, there are still places in Iraq where Slovak military engineers would be very useful.

Since the Slovak mission started in July 2003, the troops managed to destroy a total 665.7 tons of unexploded ammunition, and cleared 888,570 square metres of mines mechanically and another 184,045 by hand.

During the nearly four years of presence in Iraq, a total of 713 Slovak soldiers took part in seven rotations while Slovakia suffered four casualties during that period.

Even after withdrawing its troops, Slovakia still continues to support the Iraqi security forces. The Slovak Republic has donated four Božena mine clearing devices to the government along with other military materials and has also offered to provide training to Iraqi security forces.

Eleven Slovak army officers have remained behind in Iraq. Five of them are involved in a NATO-NTM-I training mission, and the other six are holding various staff posts in order to gain additional experience.

Defence Minister František Kašický said that by withdrawing the troops from Iraq, a potential for strengthening other missions has been created.

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