VILNIUS - Lithuania's top politicians opened a public discussion on whether the Baltic country should continue sending its troops to Iraq when some larger NATO and EU members are set to withdraw from the country. Juozas Olekas, Lithuania's defense minister, announced on Feb. 21 that there is a "realistic possibility" that Lithuania would not replace its troops when their mission in Iraq ends in August. "We and our partners in Great Britain and Denmark evaluate the situation in Iraq as stabilized and we think that security can be transferred to Iraqi troops," Olekas said.
The announcement came at a time when both Britain, the United States' major ally in Iraq, and Denmark announced their plans to substantially reduce their force levels in Iraq in coming months.
The Lithuanians 's currently some 50 troops 's are serving with a Danish battalion near the southern city of Basra, within a British-led multinational division. The Baltic country, which is a strong supporter of US policy in Iraq, had sent 120 troops when the mission there began, but it cut its contingent by half at the end of 2005.
Prime Minister Gediminas Kirkilas said that even after the withdrawal of its troops from Iraq, Lithuania will not completely abandon the mission.
"Our troops will remain on a training mission. Lithuania is staying in Iraq de facto. We will honor our obligations towards the international coalition. We are and will be having consultations with our allies," Kirkilas told the Baltic News Service on Feb. 21.
But president Valdas Adamkus said he believes the withdrawal of troops from Iraq would be the wrong decision.
"It is easy to run away when a situation is difficult," Adamkus said in an interview published in the Atgimimas weekly on Feb. 23.
"We should act decently, as together with the United States and other Western democracies we backed basic principles when we went into Iraq, and we should not now run away from a complicated situation at the first opportunity," the president added.
He also called for making the decision in concert with other coalition members.
"If Lithuania today withdrew from Iraq without waiting for a joint decision, I would not be proud of it," Adamkus said.
Speaking at a briefing the same day, the president stressed that the defense minister alone cannot make the decision on troop withdrawal.
"The recall may be decided only at the state level, with the participation of the government, parliament and State Defense Council. I believe that the president also has a say in this issue," Adamkus said.
Under Lithuania's constitution, the president is commander-in-chief of the country's armed forces. He also chairs the State Defense Council, which includes the prime minister, the foreign minister, the head of national security and the army chief, and is empowered to make decisions on major foreign policy issues.