The United States said Monday it hopes a Ukrainian decision on the future of its Iraq troop contingent will be made by the country's next government in a "measured" way, in consultation with other coalition partners. Outgoing Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma has ordered government ministries to draw up a plan for a withdrawal in the first half of this year.
Officials here insist they're not accusing Mr. Kuchma of trying to "ramrod" a decision on withdrawing troops from Iraq through the government before a new president takes over in Kiev.
But the State Department is nonetheless saying it should be an issue for the country's incoming president to decide, and that U.S. officials hope the decision will be made in a "measured way" in full consultation with Ukraine's coalition partners.
The comments here follow word from Kiev that President Kuchma, with just days remaining in office, had ordered the foreign and defense ministries to develop a plan for withdrawing the country's 1,650 troops from Iraq within six months.
The action followed a weekend explosion at an ammunition dump in Iraq, described as an accident rather than an insurgent attack, that killed eight Ukrainian soldiers and one from Kazakhstan.
At a news briefing, State Department Deputy Spokesman Adam Ereli expressed the United States' "deep condolences" over the deaths of the soldiers.
Mr. Ereli said the United States values the contribution Ukrainian soldiers have made to the effort in Iraq and recognizes their sacrifice, and he said whatever decision that government eventually makes about the troop presence will not diminish this:
"What is done in the future should in no way detract from what has been contributed in the past, which as I said earlier is brave and courageous service in support of a noble cause, and for that Ukraine I think has every right to stand proudly with those who have worked to support the ambitions of the Iraqi people," he said.
Ukraine, currently the fourth-largest contributor to the coalition behind the United States, Britain and Italy, has now had a total of 16 of its troops killed in Iraq.
The newly certified winner of the December 26 re-run presidential election in Ukraine, Viktor Yushchenko, has also called for a withdrawal of his country's troops from Iraq and thus the change of leadership is unlikely to mean a change in policy.
Mr. Yushchenko was officially confirmed the winner by the country's Central Election Commission late Monday.
But his opponent, former Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, has not conceded defeat and he will have a week to file a final election appeal with the supreme court.
Spokesman Ereli said the United States will wait until the process runs its entire course before formally recognizing and congratulating a winner. He also said it is too soon to be talking about who might represent the United States at inaugural ceremonies.
The Bush administration had been critical of Russia for its early embrace of Mr. Yanukovych as the winner in the disputed November 21 run-off election, which was later invalidated by the supreme court because of "massive" irregularities.