7 August 2003, Volume 5, Number 24
CROATIAN DEFENSE MINISTER ZELJKA ANTUNOVIC TALKS TO RFE/RL.
Croatian Defense Minister Zeljka Antunovic told RFE/RL's Enes Zebic on 25 July that a platoon of Croatian Army soldiers will go to Iraq once the parliament ratifies the peacekeeping mission (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 July 2003).
RFE/RL: It seems that Croatia seriously intends to send its troops to Iraq. What kind of arrangement are we talking about?
Zeljka Antunovic: Right now these are only the intentions we publicly expressed in Brussels during the defense ministers' meeting of the Partnership for Peace program. But technical preparations are already under way to make things happen once political aspects are finalized.
RFE/RL: After the parliamentary debate and ratification, when do you expect the troops to leave for Iraq?
Antunovic: We estimate that some six months are needed to prepare. Since the original decision was made in mid-June, we might expect deployment by the end of the year, if everything goes well.
We cannot send many troops to Iraq, but what we can offer is our highly professional capabilities. We also hope to establish a partnership-type of cooperation in order to better equip our troops -- and we are probably talking about a platoon.
As far as other details are concerned, we might discuss them once the negotiations are over and we have taken into consideration all the possible options, experts' opinions, and political decisions. If I told you more now, it would be mere speculation that could produce adverse public reactions unnecessarily.
RFE/RL: Is the purpose of the project to conduct a military mission or to improve relations with the United States?
Antunovic: Activities like this cannot exist without political decisions. That means not just having closer relations with the United States, but first of all to promote the interests of the Republic of Croatia.
The interest of the Republic of Croatia is to find concrete opportunities to carry out a partnership with the United States. We don't want to be just a subordinate. Instead of being mere users of U.S. military assistance, we want to show that we are capable of being partners and closer to NATO standards....
RFE/RL: The parliament must ratify the decision to send Croatian troops to Iraq. How do you intend to do this since the [governing] Croatian Peasants' Party [HSS] is firmly against it? Don't you risk being left with only the votes of the [governing] Social Democratic Party [SDP] and the [opposition] Croatian Democratic Community [HDZ]?
Antunovic: One should not draw such a conclusion based only on the HSS spokeswoman's statement. I was surprised [at what she said] but consider it the result of misunderstanding between Miss Marijana Petir, the HSS spokeswoman, and her party. Most probably there was not enough time for them [to clarify the party's position].
The [decision makers] of the HSS are very well aware of the preparations that are under way, both military and political....
RFE/RL: There were rather malicious commentaries in some of the media that Croatia might become part of occupation forces "for the first time since Stalingrad" if its troops join the international forces in Iraq. What do you say?
Antunovic: There is a very similar situation in Afghanistan, but nobody calls the foreign troops there "occupation forces."
[The UN seems to be calling for] help in establishing peace and the rule of law [in Iraq], regardless of the fact that there is no UN mandate there.
It seems to me just a matter of time before an [international] political consensus is reached. The point is that if we fail to establish stability and the rule of law in Iraq, it might develop into a large and very dangerous region adversely affecting the entire world.