Prague, 11 January 2005 (RFE/RL) -- "The [outgoing] president of Ukraine [Leonid Kuchma] has ordered the defense minister and the foreign minister to immediately begin planning for a withdrawal of the Ukrainian contingent from Iraq in the first half of this year," Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksandr Kuzmuk said.
Kuzmuk said the country's 1,600 troops could begin leaving Iraq in March or April. The Ukrainian parliament called today for an even quicker withdrawal.
The troop presence has been unpopular, and a withdrawal had been expected. But the firmer timetable announced yesterday came a day after eight Ukrainians -- and one Kazakh -- died in an explosion at an Iraqi ammunition dump.
Valeriy Chaly, an analyst at Kyiv's Razumkov Center, told RFE/RL: "This decision wasn't unexpected. Parliament in December adopted a resolution that had a recommendatory character, and today we've seen that confirmed with the request for the president to sign a decree on the immediate withdrawal of the Ukrainian contingent from Iraq. Of course, the deaths of the biggest number of Ukrainian soldiers since the beginning of the campaign [on 9 January] provided a shocking stimulus [to this decision]. But nonetheless -- though it might sound cynical -- I would say it has a political tinge to it."
Kuchma's order was seen by some as an attempt to upstage the man who is soon to replace him. Viktor Yushchenko, who won last month's rerun presidential election, is also in favor of withdrawing Ukrainian troops from Iraq. Warsaw, too, has announced it is pulling one-third of its troops out of Iraq next month, after the Iraqi elections. Other countries withdrew last year, like Spain and the Philippines.
But there are changes in the opposite direction. The United Kingdom announced yesterday that it will be sending more troops to Iraq -- 400 of them, ahead of the 30 January elections. Georgia also previously announced extra troops for this month. And Armenia last month approved sending a small contingent of troops.
"In a way, it doesn't matter enormously how many countries are there and what they're producing in military terms. Politically, it's a different matter."
In an initial reaction to the Ukrainian move, U.S. State Department spokesman Adam Ereli expressed condolences for the soldiers who died. And he said a withdrawal would not detract from Ukraine's contribution.
"I would reject any notion that anybody is running scared in this matter. First of all, Ukraine has courageously supported the multinational force in Iraq. They are one of the largest contributors of troops. They are an important partner to the coalition's efforts. We value their contribution, and we recognize their sacrifice," Ereli said.
Julian Lindley-French is a Geneva-based security analyst. He said the Ukrainian and Polish moves will be a blow to the multinational force, as it needs as many troops as possible to perform a "robust" peacekeeping job.
"The Ukrainians and Poles would argue that with the elections coming up, they've fulfilled their job to be present until Iraq can reestablish its own state sovereignty. Obviously, in the real world, the need for troops to stabilize the situation will continue. I suspect the Poles and Ukrainians are using the increased numbers of American and British troops as a cover to try and get out -- in a sense, trying to force the Americans and the British to keep high levels of troops there over a longer period, which won't go down too well in Washington or London," Lindley-French said.
But British defense analyst Paul Cornish told RFE/RL that such troop reductions don't matter much, at least in military terms. "[The Ukrainians and Poles are] doing important policing and guarding roles, [but] they are much less significant than the British and Americans and those forces -- and there are few of them -- that can conduct high-intensity counterinsurgency operations," he said. "So really, in a way, it doesn't matter enormously how many countries are there and what they're producing in military terms. Politically, it's a different matter."
Any final decision on the status of Ukraine's troops may come only when Yushchenko takes office.
A total of 16 Ukrainian troops have died in Iraq since their deployment as part of U.S.-led coalition forces in 2003.