Bulgarians were stunned when Iraqi insurgents killed five Bulgarian soldiers and wounded dozens of others in a car bomb attack in late December 2003. Two weeks later, grief has been pushed aside by a heated debate about whether the tragedy in the southern city of Karbala could have been averted -- and if so, who should bear responsibility?
Prague, 9 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Bulgaria buried the soldiers killed in Karbala with full honors, with state and government leaders paying tribute to the men's bravery in fulfilling their military duties.
Since then, 47 volunteers from a second unit bound for Iraq have pulled out of the mission. Some of the soldiers who refused to go cited the concern of their families. Others said the current daily allowance of $62 per day is simply not worth the dangers of the mission.
No one is questioning Bulgaria's continuing commitment to the U.S.-led military mission in Iraq. The Bulgarian contingent of some 480 troops forms part of a 9,200-strong multinational force under Polish command. It was due to be replaced by mid-February.
But opposition politicians -- both on the left and the right -- and local media are now questioning the training of the troops and the security measures at the Karbala base.
Several retired generals have also spoken out against the alleged lack of military equipment and what they say were inadequate security measures at the base. Some media reported soldiers had to pay for parts of their equipment out of their own pockets.
Sergei Stanishev, the leader of the opposition Socialist Party, says such lapses are "unacceptable."
"I was extremely worried by reports following the meeting [6 January] between [Defense] Minister [Nikolai] Svinarov and the unit's commanders that the second battalion [due for deployment] also lacks some military equipment. This is completely unacceptable and begs an explanation," Stanishev said.
Former Prime Minister Ivan Kostov, who headed the previous right-of-center government of the Union of Democratic Forces, said the attack could have been averted had there been "effective preparation" on the Bulgarian side. In an interview with the private bTV channel, he said all state and government institutions should bear their share of the responsibility.
"We should have been fully aware that deploying such a [big] military contingent, accepting duties on such a scale, presupposes that officials on many levels, including the highest [state] levels, bear some responsibility. And this includes the president, who is also the commander in chief of the Bulgarian army; then the prime minister; the ministries of defense, finance, transport [and] foreign affairs, as well as the army general staff and parliament," Kostov said.
President George Parvanov yesterday convened an unusual high-level meeting of several cabinet ministers, parliamentary deputies, and military commanders to discuss the circumstances of the Karbala attack. He said a parliamentary commission should be set up to investigate the incident.
He also called for better intelligence cooperation with allies. Defense Ministry officials had earlier tried to pin the blame for inadequate security at the Bulgarian base on Polish commanders.
The military itself says the soldiers stationed in Iraq are well trained.
Earlier this week, General Nikola Kolev, the army's chief of staff said, "Training programs are being constantly improved because the enemy [tactics] are also improving."
He also told a local radio station that the troops had most of the equipment they needed -- but admitted they lacked armored vehicles to patrol the streets.
The Ministry of Defense has set up its own investigative commission and has promised to make its findings public.
"War is war," Kolev says. "It has its own logic, including when it comes to deciding who should bear responsibility."
Yesterday, the military announced that soldiers' daily allowance in Iraq will be raised to $80 per day.
The Defense Ministry already has started recruiting new volunteers for the Karbala contingent. Those who pull out of the mission will have to repay the costs of their training and medical examinations.
The ministry is also working on legislation to make participation in peacekeeping missions abroad mandatory for members of the country's professional military.
There have been no public opinion polls since the troops' deployment in Iraq. But ahead of the U.S.-led war, the majority of Bulgarians rejected military intervention.
Sociologist Mira Yanova told RFE/RL that only about one-third of citizens supported the war -- but she cautions that the split was not as clearly defined as it may seem.
"At the same time, there were certain contradictions even then. The majority of the people were against the military intervention. But then on the question what should be Bulgaria's position, public opinion was almost equally split. The number of those who -- regardless of whether they rejected military intervention -- believed Bulgaria should take part in military operations on the side of the U.S. and NATO was slightly higher," Yanova said.
Yanova says current media coverage may have increased slightly -- but not dramatically -- the number of opponents of the military operation. But she says the majority of citizens is convinced that Bulgaria -- if it wants to integrate into Europe and NATO -- has no choice but to shoulder its share of the burden.
And that burden includes the risk that more of its soldiers will die in incidents like the attack in Karbala.
(The interview with former Prime Minister Ivan Kostov is courtesy of bTV.)