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Bulgaria: Sofia Says Attacks In Karbala Will Not Weaken Resolve

Five Bulgarian soldiers were killed and 18 wounded in suicide bombings in the southern Iraqi city of Karbala on 27 December. They are the first Bulgarian troops to die in the country. Tomorrow, Bulgaria observes a national day of mourning. How have the deaths affected Sofia's resolve to stay in Iraq?

Prague, 29 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Bulgaria has suffered its first losses in Iraq but officials and media say the country will continue its mission in the country.

On 27 December, five Bulgarian soldiers were killed and 18 injured in a coordinated attack on a Bulgarian military base in the holy Iraqi city of Karbala. The attackers struck a Bulgarian base in the north of the city, a compound containing the City Hall and police headquarters in the city center, as well as a multinational logistics base run by Polish, Thai, and American soldiers.

The attacks occurred during what is the peaceful Christmas season in Bulgaria and the deaths have shaken the country.

In response, Bulgarian Defense Minister Nikolai Svinarov and Chief of Staff General Nokola Kolev have flown to Iraq to meet with their troops and bring home the bodies of the five dead servicemen. Sofia has declared tomorrow a national day of mourning.

The deaths are the first test of Sofia's commitment to the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq since Bulgaria deployed 500 soldiers, mostly in the Karbala region, earlier this year.

So far, the government's response to the attack has been to restate its resolve to stay in Iraq. Bulgarian Prime Minister Simeon Saxecoburggotski has said that Bulgaria will not be forced to give up its mission.

Georgi Stoychev, director of RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service, says the killing of the soldiers appears to have united Bulgarian politicians in support of their troops' deployment.

"The impressive thing in Bulgaria is the fact that all officials including officials with a socialist background have expressed support for the continuation of the mission -- the Bulgarian mission in Iraq -- despite the death of five Bulgarian soldiers," Stoychev said.

Stoychev also says that the sudden casualties have caused an outpouring of grief for the dead in the Bulgarian media. The second biggest daily in the country "24 Chasa" ran an article with the headline "Now it is our September 11."

There has been no criticism in the media of Bulgaria's participation in the coalition. However, some articles have urged the government to pay more attention to its soldiers, who are putting themselves at risk in Iraq for the equivalent of $60 per day.

Yahia Said of the London School of Economics says there are solid political reasons why Bulgaria's commitment in Iraq is strong enough to survive the loss of its first soldiers.

He says that Bulgaria, like many other Eastern European countries, is participating in the coalition because it "believes it is a way of getting closer to the United States and despite the casualties this objective is high on the agenda."

"I doubt that they will try to reduce their engagement because of the casualties There has been previously some Ukrainian people killed and Poles, and so on, and it didn't change these countries' attitudes toward participating in the coalition," Said said.

Attacks in Baghdad and in the so-called Sunni triangle north of the capital occur almost on a daily basis but coalition troops have been only rarely attacked in Karbala and other cities in the predominantly Shi'a south.

Until 27 December, there were only two notable assaults in the south. On 29 August, a powerful explosion in Al-Najaf killed a prominent Shi'a cleric Ayatollah Muhammed Bakr al-Hakim and wounded some 200 other people. Then, on 12 November, an attack on an Italian military base in the southern city of Al-Nasiriyah killed 19 Italians.

Some observers have asked if the sporadic but recurring violence in the south is a sign that resistance against the occupation forces is gradually spreading to the Shi'a areas.

Analyst Said says he does not see evidence of any grassroots insurgency in the south. Rather, he says, the attacks appear to originate with people from other parts of the country who operate in the south in hopes of creating the impression the whole country is fighting U.S. forces.

"I think this is the impression these people are trying to make. I think there was always in the south, as well as in the north, some groups who were very unhappy with the occupation and presence of foreign forces. But I wouldn't try, I would be cautious, to draw some conclusions from that. This is a coordinated attack in an attempt to say that this is what going to happen and this is what happening, but this is not necessarily true," Said said.

Said says neither the majority of Shi'a clerics nor ordinary people in the south support such attacks.

Today, coalition officials announced they have detained five suspects linked to the Karbala attacks. Major Dezso Kiss, a Hungarian officer attached to the Polish-led multinational division, said the suspects are being questioned.