Troops lead in Ghor

  • 2006-02-15
  • By Sven Becker
VILNIUS - The sun just rose over the buff tents in Shaibah Log Base, about 15 kilometers outside the southern Iraqi city of Basra. The thermometer displays 40 degrees Celsius 's in the shade. Major Arturas Purlys and his soldiers are getting ready for a routine patrol of an oil refinery that has been under attack by insurgents.

Purlys picks up his gun, helmet and a bulletproof vest. His comrades stash dozens of liters of water into the vehicles, as the temperature will climb above 50 degrees today 's conditions that are hard to bear beneath the safety equipment required for soldiers to wear. The security situation while on patrol is difficult to predict. Normally, the locals are peaceful and want to shake hands. However, non-coalition forces 's as Purlys calls insurgents 's have attacked the troops from nowhere on previous patrols.

The soldiers hit the dusty roads on two Wolfs 's semi-armored infantry vehicles armed with a 7.62 millimeter machinegun in the front seat. On their way to the remote refinery, the Wolfs pass destroyed tanks and artillery. Small Lithuanian flags flaunt the vehicles' side doors. Local kids resting under withered trees watch curiously as the convoy drives through their small village. Most likely, none of them had heard of a country called Lithuania before its first troops, bearing the yellow-green-red flag, appeared at the Shaibah Log Base in 2003.

At that time, Lithuania, together with the other Baltic states, decided to participate in the U.S.-led operation Iraqi Freedom that put an end to the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. Since then, up to 100 Lithuanian troops have contributed to the restoration of order, fought insurgents, protected facilities and rebuilt schools.

The soldiers have served in two different spots 's in the southern region of Basra and in central Iraq. While the so-called LITDET-detachment in central Iraq served in a Polish battalion, Purlys was based in the LITCON-contingent that is attached to a Danish battalion in the British-controlled sector. The major served in Iraq for six months and returned in August 2005. Together with Danish soldiers, Purlys organized the protection of facilities such as pipelines and oil refineries and furthermore assisted the newly formed Iraqi security forces. Purlys emphasizes the high level of cooperation with troops from other countries. "Lithuanian troops are well-integrated in the coalition forces and have acted at eye level," the major tells a conference at the Lithuanian Land Forces Command in Vilnius.

However, the decision to send troops to Iraq was a controversial one. Some of Lithuania's European partners, such as Germany and France, declined any involvement in the war that they considered a violation of international law. Furthermore, they were upset over the involvement of new EU member countries. For some time, it seemed as if differing opinions on the invasion of Iraq could lead to a frank disruption between old and new Europe 's synonyms proposed by U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld at that time.

At a meeting in his office, Lithuanian Defense Ministry Undersecretary Renatas Norkus explains the decision: "We participate in the coalition of the willing because we think that the defense of our country does not begin at our own borders, but in all regions where dangerous forces threaten peace and freedom."

He dissents from the statement that Lithuania's involvement has merely been a symbolic act to demonstrate solidarity with the United States. "If you compare the number of soldiers serving in Iraq to the total population of a country, we do not trail behind the rest of the participating nations," says Norkus.

When asked whether the discord among European countries is still noticeable, he says, "Of course, some of our partners in Europe had a different opinion toward the liberation of Iraq. However, we have to look forward, and by now all NATO members have started to act in concert in order to get the democratic process in Iraq going."

Norkus' words illustrate the Baltic state's new self-conception. Fifteen years after the successful pursuit of independence from the despotic Soviet Union, Lithuania now helps liberate and support other nations who suffer from war and tyranny.

Altogether, 250 Lithuanian troops are involved in seven different missions. Besides the troops who serve in operation Iraqi Freedom, two officers train Iraqi soldiers as part of the NATO Training Mission. In addition, Lithuanians are serving in Kosovo, Bosnia, Georgia and in two missions in Afghanistan. In February, a water purification team will come back from Pakistan where they have fulfilled humanitarian tasks after the devastating earthquake in October 2005.

For now, the Afghanistan mission has top priority, as around 120 Lithuanian soldiers and civilians are leading the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in the province of Ghor. Representatives from Denmark, Iceland and the United States assist them. "In the past, we were always part of other missions. In Ghor, we are the leaders. Lithuania is now able to return some of the assistance that our partners provided to us in earlier missions," says Norkus.

After Lithuanian troops set up camp and fulfilled some security programs, they have begun to work on reconstructing the area. "Together with our partners from Denmark, Iceland and the United States, we are in the process of developing programs that will assist locals in good governance, education and agriculture," the undersecretary says.

However, the contribution to missions across the globe has entailed some concern among Lithuania's partner 's notably at NATO Headquarters in Brussels. Lithuania's defense budget for 2006 just slightly rose while the new NATO development plans for 2006-2008 are far more ambitious and complex compared to the previous period 2004-2006. In August 2005, NATO Affairs Commission Chairman Vaclav Stankevic stated that the issue of withdrawing Lithuanian troops from Iraq had to be considered, as the country lacked funds to meet its commitments to NATO.

Today, it looks like the government in Vilnius answered NATO's prayers. Six months after the PRT-mission in Afghanistan started, the Baltic state decided to remove the LITDET-contingent from central Iraq. Around 50 soldiers came back at the beginning of February and were replaced by only three military instructors who will now train Iraqi soldiers.

Egdunas Racius, a political analyst at Vilnius University's Institute of International Relations and Political Science has observed the development. "In autumn 2004, the United States was desperately looking for countries to take over the PRT missions in several Afghan provinces, among them the sparsely populated province of Ghor," explains Racius. "They knocked on Lithuania's door, and we did not dare say 'no.' In return, the government suggested that involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan would be too much for our troops. The United States apparently understood that and supported the reduction of our troops in Iraq," explains Racius.

He subscribes to the decision to remove all troops from Iraq and focus on reconstruction work in Afghanistan. "I do not see the point in keeping a few dozen troops in Iraq any more," says Racius. "In Afghanistan, the situation seems somewhat brighter. I think it makes much more sense to invest in reconstruction there 's especially because Lithuania chose the province of Ghor, inhabitants of which have been most neglected until now."

But at this point, Veteran Arturas Purlys rejects a possible retreat from Iraq.

"The Iraqi security forces are not prepared yet to take over responsibility. They need our help, and we are ready to train them," assures Purlys, adding that politicians would decide how long Lithuanian troops serve in the Middle East.

According to Undersecretary Norkus, the 53-strong LITCON-detachment in southern Iraq will continue to serve within the multinational division: "Lithuania's parliament extended the mandate for our troops until 2007, and we will adhere to our word."

On Feb. 13, the State Defense Council that considers and coordinates key defense issues endorsed Norkus' words: "It was decided to approve all existing missions," presidential adviser Rytis Muraska told reporters after the council's meeting.

However, it remains to be seen what would happen if the United States knocked on Lithuania's door again.