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Neighbors Concerned About Training of Iraqi Exiles at US Base in Hungary - 2003-02-05

A group of Iraqi exiles is training at an American military base in a remote part of Hungary, preparing to support a U.S.-led military coalition in a possible war against Iraq. But their presence has led to concern among the local population.

Restless dogs and the just over 2,000 residents of Taszar may be forgiven for showing anxiety as foreigners seem to invade their otherwise quiet village, 200 kilometers southwest of Budapest.

Once a small black spot on the map, this rural place with few roads has become a center of world attention because up to 3,000 Iraqi volunteers will be trained here to help troops from the United States and its allies in the event of war against Iraq.

They do not include combat troops. But U.S. Major Robert Stern, says some military training is part of the program.

"The volunteers will be receiving training in basic skills such as self defense, as well as skills in translation and liaison work in support of the coalition forces in the event of war or conflict in Iraq," said Major Stern, who adds that the Iraqis being trained in Taszar will play a crucial role in helping U.S. and other forces understand Iraq's terrain and culture, as well as the language.

The Iraqis arriving in Taszar are well guarded. Curious Taszar residents watch how gum-chewing American soldiers wearing dark glasses guard the site which was once used by Russian troops under Communism.

And Major Stern says additional measures have been taken to protect the Iraqi trainees here and their families back home. "You know there is obvious sensitivity to their participation in this training program," notes Major Stern. "And one of the major things that we are doing is ensuring that their identification is protected because they may still have families in Iraq and their families around the world."

Major Stern says the trainees were recruited from Iraqi opposition groups around the world. He denies there may be spies among them, saying all participants had background checks before being flown to Taszar. The major stressed that all Iraqi exiles attending the training program seem to share the same vision. "The volunteers have arrived from all over the world, and from all different backgrounds," he said. "They have left their families, their jobs, their homes and are excited about participating in this training program. And they have one common vision, one common quest, and that is to return to a free and democratic Iraq."

Not all Hungarians have welcomed the Iraqi training program.

Opposition politicians criticized Hungarian Prime Minister Peter Medgyessy for signing a declaration published by major newspapers last week, in which he and leaders of seven other European countries express support for the U.S. policy toward Iraq.

Opinion polls show that about 80 percent of Hungarians oppose a war against Iraq, while two-thirds say they are against the training of Iraqi opposition supporters in Taszar.

It is hard to find supporters of the training program in the municipality building of Taszar. A discussion about the annual budget of a local school is overshadowed by concern about possible terrorist attacks.

In the reception area hangs a message with an emergency phone number residents can call if they notice anything suspicious.

Concerned villagers and reporters often knock these days at the door of Acting Mayor Tibor Mercz, who has become something of a local and, increasingly, international celebrity.

The acting mayor sits behind a table with two small flags displayed side-by-side. One is the local village banner. The other is an American flag. Mr. Mercz told VOA News that he has mixed feelings about the training program.

He complained that while the American military base is well-guarded and there is a police checkpoint outside the town, the Hungarian government is not doing enough to provide security around institutions such as schools. The mayor explained there is concern among the local population that the media publicity surrounding Taszar will prompt terrorists to attack the village. He says "Taszar has never been asked" whether it wanted to host the Iraqi exiles.

The mayor adds the situation was different when American soldiers first arrived and took over the Taszar base in 1995. Mr. Mercz says that was part of the Balkan peace operations and the local people supported the effort.

This time, he says the residents of Taszar are not so sure if Hungary, and in particular their small community, should be involved in a possible war against Iraq. But the Hungarian government, a new member of NATO, agreed that this training program would be a major part of its contribution to the global effort to control terrorism and weapons of mass destruction.

In the local pub and restaurant of Taszar, chain-smoking, tired-looking residents are no longer talking about the seemingly lost chickens and cows that wander around the village.

Now the talk is all about Iraq. The country that seemed to many here like a different planet, far away from every day's life, has been brought to the doorstep of this small rural community of 2,000 people.

The base has brought to Taszar a new radio station. Most residents don't understand it, but that's not a problem. These radio programs are meant for the American soldiers and the Iraqi exiles who are being trained for a possible war in their homeland.

In addition to the radio transmitter, the American trainers and Iraqi opposition volunteers brought their own food. And that's bad news for people like Edith Kovacs, the 35-year-old owner of the restaurant.

She explains that in 1995, when U.S. soldiers first arrived as part of the peace mission in the nearby Balkans, villagers hoped that Taszar would turn into a little America, with Westerners who had money to spend in the town. She says that was true for a while, but now the soldiers seem to stay more and more inside the base.

These days, Mrs. Kovacs says, the only local people who benefit from having the U.S. troops nearby are the ones who actually work on the base. "There is a very high unemployment here, people don't have jobs," she said. "And there is a big struggle to get a job of course. And many people get to serve, to work in the base, get of course better paid. But they also learn the style of Americans. The American style is that they are a superpower, they grew up with that idea, and that they have money and that with they can buy everything. The presence of Americans also creates tensions between Hungarians who work for them and those who don't. So now there is a big division."

In addition she and other villagers fear Taszar may become a target for terrorist attacks.

The armored vehicles and police cars that patrol the pot-holed and muddy roads of Taszar do not impress retired military officer Arpad Papp, who now works as a guard at the post office in a nearby town. He said more should be done to protect key locations outside Taszar, too.

"It is necessary to check the documents not only from people who come to Taszar, but also on the roads all over the country," asserted Mr. Papp. "What will be if somebody, a person of say an Arab nationality, will come here to the pub and will be served here and will figure out an object for a possible terrorist attack. For instance a food store or a big supermarket where people are shopping. Or other buildings with children such as a kindergarten or a school. These places are not secure at the moment."

Although many people seem to share this opinion, not everyone agrees. Near a gate of the army base, people can be seen parking their cars, with some arguing that this is the safest place on earth, the last place any car thief would dare operate.

Others wave to the heavily-armed soldiers guarding the area. A young couple, 28-year-old Beata and 33-year-old Szabo Vandel, take their three-year-old son for a walk.

They say they do not feel that the Iraqi training program has put them in danger. In fact, Mr. Vandel says he feels safer with the U.S. forces in town. "I am not afraid and I think that Hungary is very well prepared," said Mr. Vandel. "And I think that we in Taszar are also very well protected so I am not afraid." As to the presence of the base here and its training of the Iraqi exiles, he notes that "since Hungary is a member of NATO this is the only thing we can offer to NATO. Everybody knows that we have not a strong army and we don't have a lot of military equipment. But this is something that we can give, our place and territory."

But public opinion polls indicate that at least two out of three Hungarians disagree and say there should be no training of Iraqi exiles in Taszar, and no war against Iraq.

But Hungarian Prime Minister Peter Medgyessy has made it clear it is important that the former Communist country support the United States, especially as a member of NATO, which it joined in 1999. By the end of the program, some 3,000 Iraqis are expected to be trained at Taszar to help U.S. forces as translators, guides and administrators.

As a result, the residents of rural Taszar have become a part of the global war against terrorism and the spread of weapons of mass destruction.