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Hungary: First Iraqi Trainees Expected At Base Soon

Scores of Iraqi volunteers are expected to arrive at an air base in Hungary in the next few days to be trained for civilian duties with the U.S. military in case of an invasion of Iraq. Hungarian government officials say they have been given assurances that the Iraqis will not be given military training.

Budapest, 23 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The Hungarian government says the first of about 3,000 Iraqi volunteers will begin arriving in Hungary at the end of the month for training by U.S. experts at the Taszar air base, which is about 195 kilometers southeast of Budapest.

U.S. and Hungarian officials in Budapest say the Iraqis will be trained as support staff to help U.S. forces if there is a military intervention in Iraq.

Hungarian Defense Ministry spokesman Peter Matyuc said: "Some will help in maintaining law and order in Iraq, while others will assist in developing a temporary civil administration. Some will also act as interpreters."

U.S. officials are reluctant to provide information about the Iraqis or say where they were recruited. Hungarian sources say the first of the volunteers are expected to arrive soon after 26 January but for security reasons will not say how many are in the initial batch of trainees or from where they will arrive.

U.S. technical staff arrived at the Taszar base on 5 January, and about 150 U.S. military police arrived on 12 January.

Local residents near the base are used to the presence of U.S. military forces. In 1995 and 1996, the Taszar air base was a staging area for U.S. peacekeeping troops flying into Bosnia-Herzegovina. About 25,000 U.S. soldiers passed through Taszar. In 1999, it was used by NATO bombers during air strikes against Yugoslavia.

But Tibor Mertz, who is acting mayor of the town of Taszar, said that now, some of the 2,000 local residents are concerned that the presence of the Iraqi trainees could make the town a target for a terrorist attack. He said the town would like financial help to compensate for the possible security risks.

Local resident Judit Nemeth said people have been told the Iraqis will not leave the air base during the training period and will have no contact with locals. Despite this, she said some are still fearful: "Some people are very worried. They fear that Iraq may attack the training quarters and that this could endanger the town. The government tells us we have nothing to worry about, but the worries are still there."

A senior Defense Ministry official, Janos Gombos, recently convened a conference of local mayors and other officials to try to ease these concerns. Defense Minister Ferenc Juhasz also took a delegation of local mayors and Hungarian journalists to inspect the Taszar base to inform them about preparations for the training sessions.

He said afterward that it "should be obvious to all" that there will be no military training at Taszar.

Juhasz told the group that the Hungarian government is proud that it can make what he called a "substantive and active contribution to combating international terrorism."

However, Iraq's ambassador to Budapest, Mokhlif Yasin al-Sammarree, said his government would consider it interference in its domestic affairs if Iraqi opposition figures are trained in Hungary. He said the present training program could lead to a deterioration in Hungarian-Iraqi relations.