- The Washington Times - Monday, August 4, 2003

REYKJAVIK, Iceland — A U.S. decision to remove its fighter jets from Iceland as part of a global realignment of American forces has caused an uproar here, and Prime Minister David Oddsson is caught in the middle.

“During the Cold War, Iceland was very important for the U.S. military. Now, after the Cold War, the U.S. presence is still important for Iceland,” Mr. Oddsson told The Washington Times in an interview.

“We said that we need an air defense force in Iceland, but left it to the Americans to decide how many that will be,” he said.

In May, the United States announced it would pull its final four fighters from Iceland, an attempt to realign its forces after the September 11 attacks and to cut defense costs.

The Clinton administration had cut the American squadron from 16 jets to four.

For Mr. Oddsson, the announcement in May — right before a national election — couldn’t have come at a worse time.

The plurality of Mr. Oddsson’s Conservative Party fell from 28 seats to 22 in the 63-seat Parliament.

At Iceland’s request, the withdrawal was postponed. Mr. Oddsson is hoping for a compromise that will maintain a sizable U.S. military presence here.

He said that Iceland’s ruling coalition had supported the United States since September 11, which made the decision to pull out the jets even more painful.

Although aware that 80 percent of Icelanders were against the war in Iraq, Mr. Oddsson openly supported the United States.

Iceland is the only member of NATO with no armed forces of its own. It once served as a strategic Cold War base for keeping watch on the Soviet Union’s northern fleet.

Mr. Oddsson pointed out that Iceland supported a broad range of U.S. foreign policy decisions.

It sent aid and personnel to Kosovo and Afghanistan, and promised $4 million for the rebuilding of Iraq.

Mr. Oddsson also said that Iceland, which views itself as a bridge between the United States and Europe, may have to rethink that position if U.S. forces are withdrawn.

“The withdrawal of the American forces would press Iceland closer to Europe in order to seek shelter from other nations, but this would bring Iceland out of the attained balance between the two continents and would be a severe blow to the ruling party,” he said.

Iceland is not a member of the European Union.

“Iceland is a member of the European Economic Area (EEA), and thereby the EU internal market, and this is as close as Iceland’s current government and the majority of the Icelanders want to get,” Mr. Oddsson said.

Although Iceland had no obvious enemies, Mr. Oddsson said, “The September 11 incident taught us that unexpected events can happen at any time. Security is every country’s foremost concern.”

After Iceland gained independence from Denmark during World War II, the United States played a major role in developing the country by providing protection and helping build wealth.

Among the first jobs for Icelanders was employment at the Keflavik U.S. Naval Base.

In addition to the four F-15s, the United States has 680 Air Force and 1,200 Navy personnel in Iceland, as well as four P-3C Orion antisubmarine aircraft.

Over the years, U.S. helicopters have rescued hundreds of Iceland sailors from sinking ships.

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