With the first Bulgarian troops departing for Iraq amidst tight security on August 11, Sofia followed other East European states in supporting the US-led occupation force. However, there were also concerns over just what the soldiers might be getting into – alongside hopes that the intervention might bolster Bulgaria’s chances of a share in reconstruction.
The troops were sent to reinforce a 30-strong advance team that had established a forward base in Iraq in late July. The remaining members of the battalion, totalling 400 soldiers, are expected to join their comrades on August 12 and 13. It is estimated that they will spend six months in Iraq, according to the contracts they signed with the Bulgarian Ministry of Defence.
The soldiers will serve as part of a 13 000 strong international peacekeeping force assigned to the southern Iraqi city of Karbala under Polish command. They are expected to replace US forces by September, and despite Poland’s last minute attempts to change the Bulgarians’ stationing area, as well as their specific duties, the unit’s objective remains intact.
“The Bulgarian battalion has one general task: to share in the restoration and maintenance of peace in Iraq,” Bulgarian Deputy Defence Minister Ilko Dimitrov said as the troops departed. “This general task breaks down to concrete assignments which will be carried out according to the situation, and other assignments which are expected from the Polish command. Our force can perform a wide range of functions.”
However, with continuous attacks on coalition forces in Iraq, concerns were high over whether Bulgarian troops would also be in the firing line. When asked to comment on the type of reception Bulgarian troops could expect to receive in Kerbala, located in the Shiite-dominated southern part of Iraq and the site of recent confrontations with the US army and its coalition partners, Dimitrov said that the Bulgarian peacekeepers had been properly trained for this type of mission and were more than capable of overcoming any obstacles along the way.
Later during the week, Bulgarian Defence Minister Nicolay Svinarovalso moved to reassure by trying to stress the overall peaceful intentions of the mission itself. “Having in mind the uneasy situation in Iraq,” he told reporters, “we could say that Bulgaria’s unit is located in a peaceful city, without any activity by Shiite groups.”
However, despite the defence minister’s confidence regarding the current state of readiness of its troops, the issue was once again brought to the forefront with the issuing of an ominous warning from Velizar Shalamanov, the chair of the George Marshall Association and a former deputy defence minister. “I doubt that anyone in Bulgaria is truly prepared for life in the desert,” he said, “and this is a challenge that the Bulgarian will have to face.” He did then quickly add that with the granting of an extra week-long preparation period held in a Kuwaiti transit camp, the Bulgarian forces would no doubt benefit greatly from this transition before setting off for their final destination in southern Iraq.
Bulgaria is indeed no stranger to such operations. At present, a small group of Bulgarian medical orderlies, under the command of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), are stationed in Afghanistan bolstering the interim government’s attempts to develop a more resilient national security structure. The Bulgarian parliament is currently holding talks to discuss the possibility of sending an additional 50 armed military personnel and 25 instructors to Afghanistan.
The Bulgarian parliament approved the government-sponsored proposal to send Bulgarian peacekeepers to Iraq in late May by a 160 – 4 vote. The government’s support for the US-led invasion was therefore highly robust, in marked contrast to most European nations. During the Iraqi war, Bulgaria contributed an airport used primarily as a refuelling station for US aircraft, as well as a 97-member unit comprised of nuclear, chemical, and biological specialists.
As a reward for its active involvement as a member of the ‘Coalition of the Willing,’ Bulgaria received a firm commitment from the US State Department in early April that its firms would be included amongst the preferred contractors to participate in the eventual rebuilding of post-war Iraq.
In an interview held shortly after the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s regime, the Deputy Minister of Economy, Milen Keremedchiev, provided a more detailed account of what lay ahead for Bulgarian companies vying for lucrative Iraqi contracts. “Bulgaria stands a serious chance to supply, repair and maintain the equipment of the Iraqi police and army,” he said, “because it consists of Russian-made weapons. Bulgaria is also ready to undertake infrastructure projects, like water supply and irrigation systems in post-war Iraq.”
Back in April, just as the war ended, about 150 Bulgarian companies declared their readiness to participate in Iraqi reconstruction. Machinoexport, LB Bulgaricum, Sila and Electroimpex have already signed contracts for projects in the war-torn country, while two others, Transcomplect and SOMAT, were reported to be in negotiations with Sultan Ahmed Bin Sulayem, one of Dubai's leading businessmen, on restoration and repair work for the Iraqi port of Um Kasr, the daily Sofia Echo reported August 15.
Mohammed Amin Ahmed, the Iraqi ambassador to Sofia from 1995 to 1999, also suggested on a recent visit to Sofia that Bulgaria might play a crucial role as an oil sales point for Iraq in Europe. “There are opportunities to develop joint Bulgarian-Iraqi projects designed, first of all, for the energy sector,” he said after meeting Foreign Minister Solomon Passi. He also assured the minister that the USD1.7bn owed to Bulgaria by Iraq would be paid back when life in Iraq returned to normal.
When that might be remains questionable, particularly after the August 16 detonation of one of Iraq’s main export pipelines, an act which highlighted the vulnerability of the nation’s energy infrastructure. Yet Bulgarians remain hopeful that their commitment on the ground will one day bring results.