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Czech support for Iraq coalition admirable

Iraq"s election has come and gone, and it seems most everyone is hailing it as a historic achievement for Iraqis and Americans. Seemingly lost amid the congratulating, however, has been the effect the election could have in Coalition countries--the 28 states that have continued to participate in Operation Iraqi Freedom despite intense pressures and hardships. One nation whose government was in particular need of a sign of hope this week is the Czech Republic, a country whose ongoing support for the United States-led efforts in Iraq remains both fascinating and admirable.

The Czech Republic has supported the United States in Iraq through thick and thin. Prior to Operation Iraqi Freedom, the central European nation granted Coalition forces overflight and basing permission and sent 251 officers to Kuwait for Consequence Management Support and local training. As U.S. tanks rolled into Iraq in March 2003, Czech soldiers transported a high-tech 50-bed mobile hospital and medical staff from Zbiroh, Czech Republic to Basra, Iraq, and began providing care to hundreds of injured, burned and sick Iraqis. And the Czech military, famous for its scientific weapons expertise, also ended up deploying a 400-person nuclear, biological and chemical response unit to the Middle East to work with other Coalition members.

Today, the Czechs are still committed to Iraq, even amid insurgency, prison scandal and a major restructuring of their own government. On Friday, Czech Parliament voted to extend the deployment of their military officers currently training Iraqi forces in southern Iraq until the end of the year. According to Defense Minister Karel Kuehnl, the decision was simply based on the Czechs" view that it would be inappropriate to withdraw troops during a time of instability.

Czech contributions in Iraq seem especially hefty considering public opinion back home, as polls show Czechs were staunchly opposed to the war when it began and still are today. The Prague Post cited a figure of 70 percent in March 2003, and other studies rate opposition as high as 80 percent. Moreover, other European nations like France have been very public about their objections to the war and the U.S.-led Coalition. And even more striking, the Czech Republic"s elected President Vaclav Klaus is a vocal opponent of his nation"s involvement in the war who often criticizes U.S. efforts and motives--though it is the Prime Minister and Parliament, not him, who has ultimate say on foreign policy matters.

So why, exactly, did the Czech government risk unpopularity and backlash inside and outside their borders and join the Coalition anyway? And why have they kept contributing despite constant setbacks? All signs indicate that the Czechs" behavior comes from two desires: a desire for international unity no matter what the cause, and a simple altruistic desire to help the Iraqi people.

When pressed, Czech national leaders hold that their government seems as far from an "unwilling" Coalition partner as a nation could be. Vladimir Galuska, the Czech Republic"s former permanent representative to the United Nations, leaves little doubt that his country independently wanted to join the Coalition and is on board today. 'In Iraq, we have always been supportive of the Bush administration to the extent that our resources allowed us,' he says. 'It wasn"t any whitewashing or window dressing. After political debate, it was a decision we felt was a right one. From the beginning, the perception was considered to be a symbolic show of respect for America.'

Similarly, Jiri Schneider, head of the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs" Policy Planning Department, stresses perhaps the biggest reason behind Czech support for the war: preventing division. 'It"s not a secret that here, the political scene was quite divided,' he says. But 'right or wrong, it"s important to be in the conflict... It"s the worst scenario when Europe and the U.S. are against each other.'

Significantly, a desire to help the Iraqi people seems to have existed from the get-go, as even President Klaus notes that Europe was very concerned about how to get rid of Saddam Hussein for the sake of Iraqis before the Coalition ever intervened. And today, even some Czech citizens who opposed the war as a policy seem comfortable that their country is an important part of the Coalition. As Hannah Halfaovi, a 38-year old website designer from Prague says, 'I didn"t like it. I don"t think war is good for any nation. But I think they are helping. I think there will be a better life for Iraqis.'

Czechs like Halfaovi can likely envision a better life for Iraqis more easily now that this week"s once-dreaded elections occurred with relatively high turnouts and relatively low violence. While Sunday was certainly a day for hope in Iraq and the United States, it was also the same for the other nations participating in the Coalition, and in turn battling both insurgency in the Middle East and dissatisfaction at home.

Nathan Carleton is a Trinity senior. His column appears on Thursdays. The reporting for this column took place in Prague, CZ in June 2004.

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