Christmas came early for the Bulgarian troops operating in Iraq this year, as they began their final pullout from the country, following Iraqi parliamentary elections on December 15.
Yet Bulgaria is still seeking to have a role in Iraq, if a non-combatant one, while its military relations with the US have continued to deepen, with discussions continuing - albeit slowly - over possible US military deployments in the country.
The end of military operations for Bulgaria's Iraq contingent was marked by a ceremony last Saturday in which Polish Major-General Piotr Czerwinski thanked the Bulgarian contingent for its contribution.
A statement issued by the Bulgarian Defence Ministry indicated that "with the elections conducted, Bulgaria has concluded successfully its mission in Iraq".
The final pullout of the 380 remaining personnel will be conducted in three phases and should take place in time to bring home all personnel in time for the holidays.
The former duties of the Bulgarian force will be turned over to an Iraqi unit.
The troops had been based in Diwaniya, 180-km south of Baghdad, under the command of the Multinational Division Centre South, which issued a statement confirming the completion of Bulgaria's participation in military actions.
Since operations began in August 2003, the unit completed over 175 projects in conjunction with the multinational coalition. Their primary tasks were to train the Iraqi army, execute civil missions and guard military convoys.
Thirteen soldiers and six civilians from the Bulgarian contingent were killed during the course of their deployment.
The process for the pullout was set in motion last May when the Bulgarian parliament agreed to support the government's proposal to withdraw all of the country's military personnel by the end of the year. Of 208 deputies present for the vote, 110 voted for withdrawal, with 53 against and 45 abstaining.
The plan called for a two-stage extraction from Iraq, with a portion of the troops leaving in June and the remainder pulling out by the end of 2005.
Meanwhile, although Bulgarian military personnel will no longer participate in combat operations, the government has indicated that it would continue to support its coalition allies by contributing in other ways.
"We have expressed Bulgaria's commitment to be part of the multi-national force of the coalition in Iraq," Foreign Minister Ivailo Kalfin recently told OBG. "We will continue to work with the Americans and other partners to explore possible options for Bulgarian participation."
One such option currently being investigated is the deployment of 120 non-combat troops to help guard the Ashraf refugee camp, located 70-km north of Baghdad.
"I expect that the parliamentary majority would support the participation of the Bulgarian Armed Forces in the guarding of Ashraf refugee camp in Iraq," Defence Minister Veselin Bliznakov recently told local journalists. "The continuation of the Bulgarian mission in Iraq is of great political significance. Bulgaria could not afford to quit its mission in Iraq, especially after we have lost men and we expect to participate in the economic reconstruction of Iraq."
A decision by the Council of Ministers on whether or not to proceed with the humanitarian mission in Ashraf is expected by the end of the year. If the operation proceeds, it could start early next year and would last at least four months.
Although the 500-odd soldiers of the Bulgarian contingent made up only a fraction of military forces gathered in Iraq, the pullout is still a powerful symbolic gesture when put into the context of the drastic reduction of international troops since operations began in 2003.
While the Bulgarian contingent represented only a small proportion of coalition forces, it is also indicative of a much larger problem facing the coalition - that of dwindling international resolve to continue putting their citizens in harm's way for an increasingly unpopular cause.
Yet even though Bulgaria is pulling out its Iraqi contingent, it still maintains peacekeeping forces in Afghanistan. In fact, troop numbers there are likely to increase when Bulgarian forces take over security duties at Kabul airport next year.
Military co-operation with the US meanwhile also extends beyond the participation in Middle East. The country is also involved in ongoing negotiations with the US concerning the shared use of Bulgarian military facilities.
The talks have stalled on the issue of the degree of operative freedom US forces would enjoy while in Bulgaria. It was hoped that a tentative agreement between the two countries would be reached before the end of the year, but the lack of progress over the last month has now made that target date unrealistic.
The facilities in question are Novo Selo, where previous US and multinational training has been held, and Bezmer air base, near the eastern Bulgarian city of Sliven.
If and when an agreement is reached, it would mark the first time that Bulgaria has hosted foreign forces.