- The Washington Times - Monday, June 21, 2004

Ukrainian troops will remain in Iraq despite continuing security woes and political pressure at home, Foreign Minister Konstantyn Hryshchenko said in an interview yesterday.

“We have faced constant criticism from our opposition, but it is the strong position of our government that we have to combat international terrorism — not just on our home soil, but wherever it threatens us,” Mr. Hryshchenko said.

With 1,650 troops deployed in the southern province of Wasit, Ukraine has the largest non-NATO force participating in the U.S.-led postwar security mission, and the fifth-largest deployment overall. Three Ukrainian soldiers have been killed in combat operations.

The government of Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma has made eventual membership in NATO a top priority. Kiev is hoping Ukraine’s contributions to the Iraq mission and NATO’s peacekeeping force in Kosovo will give its candidacy a boost when NATO leaders hold a summit in Istanbul next week.

“We are trying to demonstrate we can not only be part of a coalition of the willing, but we play a real operational role in the coalition,” said Mr. Hryshchenko, who served as ambassador to Washington before taking the top diplomatic post.

The Ukrainian foreign minister met with Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and other senior administration and congressional leaders during his one-day stop in Washington.

The visit comes at a time of distinct improvement in Ukraine’s sometimes strained relations with the United States and the West.

Bilateral ties were severely strained by accusations in 2002 that Mr. Kuchma approved the sale of sensitive radar equipment to Saddam Hussein’s regime and by the unsolved slaying of a prominent Ukrainian journalist who was harshly critical of Mr. Kuchma.

The president, who has said he will step down when his second five-year term ends in October, was largely shunned by NATO leaders at the Prague summit in 2002.

NATO officials in Brussels caution that Ukraine’s military still must undergo major reforms, but relations are clearly better.

NATO has used Ukraine’s highly regarded An-124 Ruslan transport planes— which are built in Kiev — to ferry troops to Afghanistan, and Mr. Kuchma is expected to received a much friendlier reception in Istanbul than he got two years ago.

Ukraine’s leftist opposition parties have consistently opposed the country’s Iraq mission. Ukrainian forces in southern Iraq came under heavy pressure after U.S. forces began an unexpected crackdown on supporters of radical Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

But the foreign minister said he remained “cautiously optimistic” about Iraq’s political future, particularly in light of the recent U.N. resolution endorsing a transition to a fully sovereign Iraqi government.

“I am optimistic if only because failure would be so costly that it’s hard to imagine how the international community can allow it to happen,” he said.

“Whatever the questions about the beginnings of the war, a failure now in Iraq would mean bigger problems for everyone than anything Saddam Hussein ever posed before.”

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