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A REPORT ON THE PEACEKEEPING UNIT TO BE GIVEN TO PARLIAMENT IN SEPTEMBER IS ALREADY UNDER DEBATE

Slovak soldiers to stay in Iraq

SLOVAKIA is unlikely to withdraw its troops from Iraq although the country's neighbours have started heated discussions over the presence of their soldiers in the war-torn country.
"Our soldiers will stay in Iraq as long as necessary and until they fulfil their humanitarian goals," said Slovak Defence Minister Juraj Liška on August 24, just a few hours before he unexpectedly flew to Iraq and visited the Slovak peacekeepers there in camps Charlie and Alpha.
Liška said his goal was to give "moral support" to the Slovak soldiers who have been fulfilling humanitarian aims under the Iraqi Freedom operation. The Slovak unit of around 100 specialists is clearing local minefields.

SLOVAKIA is unlikely to withdraw its troops from Iraq although the country's neighbours have started heated discussions over the presence of their soldiers in the war-torn country.

"Our soldiers will stay in Iraq as long as necessary and until they fulfil their humanitarian goals," said Slovak Defence Minister Juraj Liška on August 24, just a few hours before he unexpectedly flew to Iraq and visited the Slovak peacekeepers there in camps Charlie and Alpha.

Liška said his goal was to give "moral support" to the Slovak soldiers who have been fulfilling humanitarian aims under the Iraqi Freedom operation. The Slovak unit of around 100 specialists is clearing local minefields.

Anton Sládeček, chief of the Slovak unit, told the daily SME that the visit pleased the soldiers who learned about the minister's flight to Iraq only two hours prior to his arrival at the base.

Politicians in Slovakia, however, have not been united on how long the troops should stay on their mission. Even the ruling coalition parties have been uncertain on how long to keep the Slovak peacekeepers in Iraq.

On August 24, however, the parliamentary foreign affairs committee recommended that parliament discuss the cabinet's report on Iraq at its upcoming session in September.

Surprisingly, Jozef Ševc, the chairman of the Slovak Communist Party (KSS), a parliamentary opposition party that was against the Slovak presence in Iraq, opposed the recommendation of the foreign committee, saying that the cabinet has already failed to provide a true picture of the situation in Iraq. According to Ševc, the cabinet has been misleading the country.

"Saddam is behind bars but the Iraqis are not free," the KSS leader told the news wire SITA on August 24.

The Christian Democratic Movement, the only ruling coalition party which voted against the deployment of Slovak troops in Iraq, requested the report from the cabinet.

Mikuláš Dzurinda's cabinet explicitly supported the continuation of the Slovak mission in Iraq, stating that the withdrawal of troops would be a mistake.

"Slovak troops should remain in Iraq for at least another year, while their mandate will be reviewed in June 2005. The Iraqi government can request an earlier withdrawal of international forces," the cabinet stated.

According to the cabinet, an immediate withdrawal would cost Sk74.5 million (€1.9 million) and an unplanned return and redeployment of the unit would require Sk149 million (€3.7 million) from the state budget.

Slovak Foreign Affairs Minister Eduard Kukan said that the cabinet's report contained all the data requested by parliament. He said that once the report is in their hands, even those who previously objected to the deployment of the Slovak soldiers would understand that their withdrawal would be a mistake.

Tomáš Valášek, an analyst with the Brussels branch of the American Research Center, warned that politicians, including Slovak and Polish representatives, have become hostages of the events in Iraq and do not know when they will be able to withdraw their troops, the daily SME wrote.

Slovak Interior Minister Vladimír Palko, a Christian Democrat, insisted that going to Iraq was the wrong decision.

"I said then that this war was premature to say the least," Palko said, adding that people watching the current situation in Iraq knew that Saddam Hussein had been a cruel dictator but that he had not been a threat to Slovakia and the international community.

Slovak Army Chief of Staff General Milan Cerovský, who presented the foreign committee with the report on Iraq, insisted that Slovak soldiers would stay in the mission.

He assured the members of the committee that, if the situation in Iraq became unexpectedly and dramatically more complicated, the Slovak Republic in cooperation with the Polish command would re-evaluate the continuation of the mission.

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