RIGA - Latvia is planning to withdraw its troops from Iraq by the end of 2008, Latvian Defense Minister Vinets Veldre said, citing the steady decline of violence there.
"The situation in this country is returning to normal. The number of terror acts there has decreased by 80 percent over the past year," the minister said.
Ministry officials came to the decision after several talks with the commanders of other coalition forces. More and more control over the nation's territories is being returned to Iraqi authorities.
Latvian President Valdis Zatlers explained on the Latvian television program "Panorama" that the pullout has to be assessed in a global context and is more than just a way to save some cash.
Despite the small number of Latvian soldiers remaining in Iraq 's three 's some citizens view the pullout as just another attempt to balance the budget after job cuts and wage freezes announced in the last few weeks. Zatlers insisted that the two decisions are not related.
"The process must be viewed in the world context. It has nothing to do with the state budget," the president said.
The current rotation of Latvian soldiers will come to an end on Dec. 31, when the three remaining servicemen of the Latvian National Armed Forces stationed in Iraq are scheduled to return from their mission. The decision has been approved by U.S. and Iraqi officials.
No changes are being planned for other multinational missions involving Latvian troops, Veldre said, adding that the number of military observers in Georgia was the most important issue at the moment. Whether or not Latvia will send any troops to Georgia still remains to be seen.
At present there are three Latvian soldiers serving in Iraq: two in Baghdad and one in Divania.
Latvian lawmakers made the decision to send troops to Iraq in 2003. At the start of the mission, 36 soldiers, including unexploded ordnance specialists, were deployed to Iraq. Latvia sent 203 more troops later that year, but their number was gradually reduced as the mission wore on.
Soldiers of the Latvian contingent serve in the Multinational Division Central-South, led by the Polish armed forces.
Three Latvian soldiers have died in Iraq and several have been wounded since 2003.