Wednesday, July 14, 2004

The Czech Republic will keep its troops in Iraq at least through the end of the year and stands ready to offer long-term economic and technical support to the new Iraqi government, Czech Foreign Minister Cyril Svoboda said yesterday in an interview.

Mr. Svoboda said his government is committed to supporting the U.S.-led security force in Iraq and to maintaining strong U.S.-European ties, despite political troubles at home that have shaken the ruling coalition in Prague.

“Our troops will see out their mission to the end of the designated term, which is the end of this year,” Mr. Svoboda said.

The Czech Republic, which has 92 troops in southern Iraq helping train Iraqi military police, would also be willing to continue with the training — either inside the country or in another country — after Dec. 31.

Continuing violence and a rash of kidnappings in Iraq have focused new attention on the commitment of America’s military allies there. The Philippines said this week it is beginning an immediate pullout of its troops to save the life of a Filipino held hostage in Iraq.

Mr. Svoboda met this week with Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and with lawmakers on Capitol Hill before leaving yesterday.

The Czech role in the global war on terror was highlighted with the release of a Senate Intelligence Committee report this week that cast strong doubt on a report that chief September 11 plotter Mohamed Atta met with a senior Iraqi diplomat in Prague in April 2001.

Mr. Svoboda said accounts of the meeting were “raw intelligence” that Czech security forces shared with the CIA and that the Czech government has never taken an official position on their accuracy.

He said the European parliamentary elections reflected continuing, deep popular skepticism in the Czech Republic about the future of the European Union just two months after the country formally joined the bloc.

He said his pro-EU government was working to convince the public as the 25 EU nations face a lengthy debate on whether to endorse a new constitution.

“It is up to the political elites to be more active in explaining what the European Union means to all of us, economically and politically,” he said. “There is hardly anybody brave enough now to say that the EU is an excellent project, that there is a need for everyone to compromise.”

Mr. Svoboda sounded a cautious note on eventual EU membership for Turkey, which has been strongly backed by President Bush. He said he supported the recent EU decision to begin negotiations with Turkey, but said Turkish membership would present major new challenges.

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