Fri, Nov 05, 2004 - Page 7 News List

Hungary may pull troops out of Iraq after elections

AP , BUDAPEST, HUNGARY

Hungary's government will ask lawmakers to keep its 300 troops in Iraq for an extra three months, but will withdraw the soldiers by the end of March, the country's new prime minister said.

The decision dealt a blow to US President George W. Bush's effort to hold the multinational force together.

The interim Iraqi government asked Hungary a few weeks ago to keep its troops there for about another year.

Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany said Wednesday he would ask parliament to extend the troops' current mandate, which expires on Dec. 31, but only until March 31. Hungary's largest opposition party, which wants the soldiers home by the end of the year, signaled it likely would block the move.

"We are obliged to stay there until the [Iraqi] elections. To stay longer is an impossibility," Gyurcsany said. Iraq's elections are to be held by Jan. 31. Hungary, 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 object to the soldiers' presence.

Recent polls had shown that around 60 percent of Hungarians wanted the government to withdraw the country's troops from Iraq immediately. The announcement was a blow to Bush, who has struggled to keep the US-led multinational force from unraveling since Spain pulled out its 1,300 troops earlier this year.

Andras Simonyi, Hungary's ambassador to the US, said the government's decision to seek an extension until after the Iraqi elections was "serious and responsible."

"It is important for Hungary to be present at this critical stage of Iraq's democratization process," he told reporters.

In a letter sent to Hungary about three weeks ago, Iraq thanked the country for its contributions so far and asked it to extend the mission "to help Iraq's stabilization process," Hungarian government spokeswoman Boglar Laszlo said.

Hungary has a transportation contingent of 300 troops stationed in Hillah, south of Baghdad.

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