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Romania: Militants Threaten To Kill Hostages If Romania Keeps Troops In Iraq

Romanians participating in a rally in Bucharest today hold a placard reading 'Out of Iraq' Prague, 27 April 2005 (RFE/RL) – Hostage takers are again demanding a member of the international coalition withdraw its troops from Iraq. This time it is Romania that faces the pressure as three of its journalists – plus their interpreter – face death threats.

The hostage takers have set today as the deadline for Bucharest’s decision.

The militants issued a video – aired yesterday on the Al-Jazeera satellite television channel -- showing the three kidnapped Romanian journalists.

The news station reported that the kidnappers have set today as the deadline for killing them unless Romania pulls out its 800 soldiers.

The video showed two men and a woman sitting in handcuffs with hand guns pointing at their heads. The woman, Marie Jeanne Ion, a reporter for Prima TV, could be seen talking to the camera and clutching her hands as if she were pleading.

Ion, along with cameraman Sorin Miscoci and Romania Libera daily correspondent Ovidiu Ohanesian were seized in a Baghdad suburb on 28 March.

Al-Jazeera also aired a separate tape showing the Romanians’ translator, Mohamad Munaf, who has U.S., Romanian, and Iraqi citizenship, asking U.S. President George W. Bush to help save his life.

David Hartwell, a Middle East expert with the London-based publication "Jane's Sentinel Security Assessments," said Romania is unlikely to bow to the pressure.

"Experience seems to indicate that isn't a tactic that really works," Hartwell said. "I don't know if the Romanians are talking to the abductors or there is any implication of a ransom being paid. It doesn't seem to be really the case."

Hartwell also said it is an unrealistic to demand a state withdraw its troops by threatening to kill journalists.

Romania's government has said it has been in contact with the abductors but it has not commented on the future of its 800 troops.

Meanwhile, several other countries in the international coalition have recently announced they are reducing or withdrawing their contingents in Iraq.

Last month, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi announced plans to start reducing Italy’s 3,000-strong detachment in September.

Also last month, the Bulgarian government said it will recall about a quarter of its 450 troops in the Gulf in June and could bring them all home by the end of the year.

Ukraine said earlier it plans to complete the withdrawal of its 1,600 troops by the middle of the year. And Poland will remove its force of 2,400 troops by the end of the year. Dutch troops have almost fully withdrawn as of this month.

Other countries that have already left include the Thailand, Hungary, Honduras, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Portugal, New Zealand, the Philippines, and Norway.

In all, 14 countries have permanently withdrawn since March 2003 invasion, and today's coalition stands at 24. That compares with a total of 38 countries that have provided troops in Iraq at one point or another.

Several European states, including Poland, Hungary, and the Netherlands, have indicated will now play a role in training Iraqi army and police forces in place of directly providing troops for security.

Hartwell said the thinning of the coalition ranks continues a trend that began over a year ago.

"The trend of countries leaving, or sort of withdrawing, from Iraq has been established over about a year or so, ever since the Spanish withdrew after the elections last year," Hartwell said. "And you had countries drifting away, the Italians were the most recent, I think, to leave."

Analysts say that governments withdrawing their troops are reacting to political pressure at home. That pressure is often fueled by public opposition to the deployments and anxiety about casualties. Iraqi militant groups have sought to add further pressure by threatening and sometimes killing hostage nationals of coalition countries.
Several countries in the international coalition have recently announced they are reducing or withdrawing their contingents in Iraq.

But Hartwell said there are still countries with big contingents of troops that are staying.

The biggest contributors to the coalition are the United States, with 150,000 troops and Britain with 8,850 soldiers.

Excluding U.S. forces, there are almost 23,000 foreign soldiers still in Iraq. They include troops from South Korea, Australia, Bulgaria, Georgia, El Salvador, Mongolia, Slovakia, Japan, and other countries.

Hartwell said that without any doubt the Americans will be the last to leave. Washington and several other major coalition states have tied their exit to Iraqi security forces being able to secure the country themselves.

So far, the situation in Iraq remains far from that point. The Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Richard Myers said this week at a Pentagon press conference that insurgent attacks are becoming more sophisticated.

"One of the things we have noticed this month, in particular, if you look at a monthly (picture) -- but the month of April, they've been using more vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices, which are obviously very deadly and they've used some of them in (pairs)," Myers said.

However, he said the number of the attacks is on the same level as last year. Myers also said that just counting the number of attacks was in any case a poor method of measuring the insurgency and pointed out that half of attempted attacks are thwarted.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said yesterday that it is not the coalition that will win the fight against the insurgency but the Iraqis.

"The United States and the coalition forces, in my personal view, will not be the thing that will defeat the insurgency so, therefore, winning or losing is not the issue for 'we' in my view, in the traditional, conventional context of using the words 'winning' and 'losing' in a war," Rumsfeld said. "The people that are going to defeat that insurgency are going to be the Iraqis."

Meanwhile, Hartwell from "Jane's Sentinel Security Assessments" said the Iraqi security forces are still too weak to effectively deal with the insurgency.

He said it is difficult to say when they will be up to task but it is realistic to think it will not be earlier than the middle of next year.

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