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Archive for Tuesday, April 20, 2004

Honduras to pull Iraq troops

Bush criticizes Spain’s decision to withdraw

April 20, 2004

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— Iraq's multinational peacekeeping force scrambled to regroup Monday after Spain's announcement that it would pull out its 1,300 troops, with Albania pledging more soldiers but U.S. officials bracing for further withdrawals.

Honduras followed suit late Monday night with President Ricardo Maduro announcing the pullout of his troops "in the shortest time possible," confirming U.S. fears.

Spanish troops will leave Iraq in less than six weeks, Defense Minister Jose Bono said Monday in Madrid, but it remains unclear who will take their place. The 9,500 peacekeepers under Polish command are charged with the south-central sector, where followers of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr are waging a bloody rebellion.

Polish officials said they thought greater United Nations involvement might help wavering countries make new troop commitments or at least follow through with what they have already promised.

"A U.N. resolution would be a great help," Polish Defense Minister Jerzy Szmajdzinski told Poland's TVN24.

Szmajdzinski said Spain's decision caught him by surprise. "We are all working intensively on several variants on how to make up for the leaving troops," he told the Rzeczpospolita daily. "Perhaps we will have to reorganize the division."

Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, the top U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, sought to allay fears about the implications of the Spanish pullout, saying there would be no "security vacuum in that area at any time."

"Numerically those are numbers (the Spanish contingent) that should be able to be replaced in fairly short order," Kimmitt said.

President Bush scolded Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero for the abrupt withdrawal, telling him in a telephone conversation Monday to avoid actions that give "false comfort to terrorists or enemies of freedom in Iraq."

"The president urged that the Spanish withdrawal take place in a coordinated manner that does not put at risk other coalition forces in Iraq," White House press secretary Scott McClellan said.

Poland has the most troops, 2,400, in the 23-nation force, and Szmajdzinski said it could not send any more.

But Albania immediately said it was ready to increase its presence. At the moment Albania's commitment is mostly symbolic, consisting of 71 non-combat troops patrolling the city of Mosul under U.S. command.

Honduras' 370 troops have been serving in Najaf under Spanish command, a situation that was thrown into doubt when Spain announced its pullout plan.

Zapatero announced the pullout just hours after his Socialist government was sworn in, fulfilling a campaign promise. Spain is the third-largest contributor of troops to the multinational force and the sixth-largest overall in Iraq.

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