HEROIC: Six hundred people filled St. Peter's church last week, among them President Vaira Vike-Freiberga, to bid farewell to Vasiljevs and Bleija, the two Latvian soldiers killed in Iraq on Dec. 27.
RIGA - Hundreds gathered at St. Peter's Church on Jan. 4 to mourn the death of two Latvian soldiers killed in Iraq, while flags fluttered at half-mast across the country. Among the solemn crowd of 600 were Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga and National Armed Forces Commander Juris Maklakovs.
Private First Class Vitalijs Vasiljevs, 24, and Private First Class Gints Bleija, 25, were killed by a roadside bomb on Dec. 27 while patrolling the Abtan al Khuza settlement, not far from the unit's military base in Divania.
Three more Latvian soldiers were injured during the explosion, one seriously.
"Gints was a great person with a fantastic sense of humor. He could always help out when necessary," a friend of Bleija was quoted by the Latvian daily Diena as saying. The soldier, engaged to be married, was scheduled to return home this week.
Despite the recent deaths, which Defense Minister Atis Slakteris said were due to "hatred and cruel fanaticism," little debate has been stirred over the necessity of Latvian soldiers in Iraq.
Indeed, 103 more members of the National Armed Forces departed for the Middle Eastern state on Jan. 2, the last rotation to participate in the international mission, Slakteris said. Although the defense minister recently stated that "unless the situation in Iraq changes dramatically, Latvia will cease sending any more units to the Gulf state," the general attitude among Latvia's leadership remains unanimous: We support our allies.
"Everyone knows that we [Latvians] need America. We've got to participate in Iraq for the United States, for our allies," Atis Lejins, head of the Latvian Institute of Foreign Affairs, told The Baltic Times. "We die for America in hope that they will die for us."
Since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq began in 2003, more than 1,000 Latvian infantrymen and bomb-disposal experts have served in the country. As of last month, the Baltic nation of 2.3 million has suffered three deaths, the first being Lieutenant Olafs Baumanis, who was killed clearing mines in 2004.
"Of course we didn't like the war in the beginning, but we joined America because they protect us from Russia," Lejins added.
On Jan. 9, Slakteris announced that Latvian soldiers would remain in Iraq for several more years, even after the new Iraqi government and security institutions take over power from the international coalition. Yet he added that the size of Latvia's contingent would gradually drop to less than a dozen.
Commenting on the decision to decrease Latvia's contingent, Lejins admitted that it was about time.
"Recently, the situation in Iraq has changed. There's no point being there anymore. We've done our duty. If the Iraqis want to fight each other, we won't stand in the middle," he said.
In December 2006, Parliament voted to extend the mission in Iraq until the end of 2007. After Latvia's current rotation period expires, about 10 peacekeepers will remain in the war-torn country.
Days after the deaths of Vasiljevs and Bleija, the Latvian National Armed Forces launched an internal investigation into the matter.
According to Commander Maklakovs, the place where the explosion occurred had been comparatively peaceful, although there had been blasts before.
He said that the bomb had been planted at the site intentionally but rejected the idea that it had been meant specifically for Latvian soldiers. The commander added that the explosion was directed against the coalition forces in general.Â
The peace-keepers were driving a light armored vehicle when struck by the explosion and were clothed in full armor.
"They were the best soldiers," National Armed Forces Chief Chaplain Elmars Plavins said during his eulogy to Vasiljevs and Bleija. "They did their job without grumbling or hesitation and will always be remembered."
There are over 130 Latvian troops serving on the international peace-keeping force in Iraq. As well as the Iraq contingent, Latvian troops are currently serving in Afghanistan, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo.