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Hungary Approves Troops for Iraq Reconstruction - 2003-06-03

Hungary's parliament voted late Monday to send 300 soldiers to Iraq to assist in its reconstruction. But the decision was not an easy one. It came after weeks of debate between the government and the political opposition in parliament.

The approval by parliament came after more than a month of political wrangling that led to tensions with Washington.

Hungary's conservative opposition, led by the Fidesz party, twice voted down a government proposal to urgently debate a United States request for Hungarian peacekeepers in Iraq.

Some conservative politicians argued there was "no peace to keep," as the war was, in a technical sense, not over. They also argued that without a United Nations mandate the Hungarian troops in Iraq would be part of an occupying force.

The opposition only relented last week, after the U.N. Security Council lifted economic sanctions on Baghdad. The U.N. decision, the opposition said, now made it legal for Hungary to participate in Iraq's reconstruction.

But to win the opposition's support for sending troops, the Socialist-led government had to agree that Hungary's 300 troops would mainly deal with logistics and humanitarian aid and avoid conflict situations.

Hungarian defense ministry officials say the unit will be in Iraq by August.

But some government officials have expressed concern that Hungary's delay in sending the troops to Iraq could have repercussions.

Defense Minister Ferenc Juhasz recently warned that officials in the U.S. government had the impression that Hungary had difficulty reaching decisions, while other nations in the region are able to act more quickly.

Poland, for example, has pledged to send 2,000 peacekeepers to Iraq and it has also agreed to lead a 7,000-strong multinational force in the country.

But the Hungarian opposition has been boosted by a recent opinion poll showing that one out of three Hungarians is against sending peacekeepers to Iraq.