- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 5, 2005

Romania will keep its troops in the U.S.-led military mission in Iraq despite mounting public concern over the fate of three kidnapped journalists, Foreign Minister Mihai-Razvan Ungureanu said in an interview yesterday.

“There is no way that we can allow our foreign policy to be shaped by kidnappers, by evildoers and terrorists,” Mr. Ungureanu insisted. “We have to decide what is in the best security interests of 23 million Romanians. We have a clear policy, and we must stick to it.”

On a Washington visit that included meeting with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley and senior lawmakers, Mr. Ungureanu also said the two sides hoped to make progress on a proposed new U.S. military base in Romania, clearing the way for political talks to begin on the base.

U.S. military planners are eyeing bases in Romania and neighboring Bulgaria as part of a wide-ranging post-Cold War redeployment of American forces in Europe.

Mr. Ungureanu, named to his post in December by center-right President Traian Basescu, said he thought a U.S. base in Romania could help focus U.S. and NATO attention on security problems in the Black Sea basin, from arms and drug trafficking to political instability in countries along the border with Russia.

“I think it could have a very big impact on people’s thinking,” he said.

The 800-troop Iraq deployment — and a second Romanian mission in Afghanistan — are tangible signs of the increasingly close ties between Washington and Bucharest.

The kidnappers in Iraq have threatened to kill the three Romanian journalists, held since March 28, if the country refused to recall its troops. Romanian public opinion polls showed a strong majority against the Iraq mission even before the standoff.

Several other coalition members, including Poland and Ukraine, have announced plans to pull out of Iraq. Bulgaria’s parliament voted yesterday to withdraw the country’s 450 troops from Iraq by the end of this year.

Romania joined NATO in 2004 and last month signed an accord putting it on track for membership in the European Union by January 2007. Bucharest’s close ties with Washington have been a source of tension inside the EU and NATO, as it has clashed with traditional European powers such as France and Germany over trans-Atlantic relations.

Mr. Ungureanu noted that the European Union faces a critical juncture as French voters prepare for a May 29 referendum on whether to adopt an EU constitution.

Polls show the vote will be close, and Mr. Ungureanu said a rejection would have “a fantastic symbolic importance” to the bloc’s ambitions to play a larger political and diplomatic role in the world.

“If France, one of the main pillars in the entire European project, won’t support this idea, who will?” he asked.

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