Hondurans Cheer Iraq Withdrawal, Salvadorans Call for Same

Civil society groups in Honduras applauded the government’s decision to withdraw the country’s 370 troops from Iraq, while voices in El Salvador called for a pullout of the Salvadoran forces as well.

"We were taken by surprise, because it looked like the troops would stay there," Juan Barahona, coordinator of the Popular Bloc, which links 21 Honduran social and labor organizations, told IPS by telephone Tuesday.

"The decision to pull them out was the right one and comes in response to the clamor and pressure from the people," he added.

Honduran President Ricardo Maduro announced late Monday that he had ordered the withdrawal of the Central American country’s troops in Iraq "in the shortest possible time."

The news came after Spain’s new Prime Minister Jose Luis Zapatero said on his second day in office Sunday that the 1,300 Spanish troops stationed in Iraq would be pulled out several months earlier than expected.

Spain’s defense minister confirmed late Monday that Spanish troops had already begun to return home.

Maduro said the Honduran soldiers "have lived up to the objectives of the mission to which they were assigned in the terms of the legislative decree that authorized their departure."

The Honduran soldiers, along with 380 from El Salvador and 300 from the Dominican Republic, formed the Plus Ultra Battalion in the base located in the Iraqi city of Diwaniya, which was commanded by Spain.

The battalion also included 113 Nicaraguan soldiers who left Iraq at the end of March and will not return due to a lack of funds, according to official sources.

The Popular Bloc said Monday that it did not believe the Honduran government and lawmakers had any intention of bringing the troops home, and Barahona had commented to IPS that "We have not obtained any benefit from the presence of our troops in Iraq."

But on Tuesday he underlined that "We are very satisfied and surprised, and applaud the government’s decision, which we all support."

President Francisco Flores in El Salvador said the Salvadoran troops would remain in Iraq, and Dominican President Hipólito Mejía said that Central American country would also keep its soldiers there until their term expires, in July. The two contingents will now be under Polish command.

The Central American troops are the only forces from Latin America and the Caribbean taking part in the occupation of Iraq. They represent a tiny deployment compared to the 130,000 U.S. forces.

In much of Latin America and the Caribbean, the war on Iraq was overwhelmingly opposed by society as well as the governments, and contributing troops to the coalition force was never even an option.

"The Central American presence in Iraq gave us an image of invaders who only follow U.S. orders," lamented Barahona.

President Maduro had argued that the Honduran troops were exclusively engaged in "humanitarian" efforts in Iraq.

After Spain announced that it was bringing home its troops, Honduran Foreign Minister Leonidas Rosa said Monday that the government was urgently discussing the intensification of the violence waged by rebel groups in Iraq, and that a decision on the troops would be announced "shortly."

The voices calling for the return of the Central American soldiers in Iraq became even more numerous after Apr. 4, when it was reported that a Salvadoran soldier, 19-year-old Natividad Méndez, was killed in an attack by the Iraqi resistance.

Auxiliary Bishop of San Salvador Gregorio Rosas said a majority of Salvadorans "do not want our adventure…in a delegitimized war that has become a quagmire" in Iraq to continue.

The bishop said he hoped Salvadoran president-elect Elías Antonio Saca, who takes office on Jun. 1, will "listen to public opinion" and pull out the troops.

"The battle to get our troops to return has received new ammunition from Spain, which we applaud and admire," Carlos Castaneda, a lawmaker with El Salvador’s leftist Farabundo Marti Liberation Front (FMLN), told IPS.

"We are going to do everything we can to bring home our troops, whose mission in Iraq has not even lived up to the terms that were announced," he said.

The mission approved by the Salvadoran parliament basically involved humanitarian work and the reconstruction of physical infrastructure.

"We will make our weight felt in Congress to demand that our troops be brought home as soon as possible, because we don’t want any more to be killed or wounded," said Castaneda, whose party holds 31 of the 84 seats in the Salvadoran parliament.

"We demand the immediate withdrawal of (all) Central American troops, because they have been left without a commander" due to the pullout of the Spanish forces, "and have no more reason to continue with this dangerous and absurd adventure," added the legislator, who sits on the parliamentary Foreign Relations Commission.

Read more by Diego Cevallos