Czech Army sends fresh contingent to Iraq as violence escalates in country

Photo: CTK

A ceremony took place at the National Memorial on Prague's Vitkov Hill on Tuesday as the latest Czech Army contingent - the tenth to date - prepared to leave for Iraq. The Czech soldiers, around a hundred in total, are stationed at a British base in Shaiba in the south of the country, where they have been training Iraqi police officers. As the soldiers bid goodbye to family and friends, I spoke to Major General Emil Pupis, director of the Czech Army's joint operations centre and deputy chief of staff; I began by asking him if many of the latest group had already served in Iraq.

Photo: CTK
"Over 60 percent of the current contingent have experience of this mission. And we rotate them on a regular basis, which means for three months they are in the territory and afterwards they are replaced by another contingent."

What has been the reaction of the Iraqis you've been training there? How has that been going, do you think, from their point of view?

"According to the assessment of the chief of the police academy and the feedback I get from Iraqi representatives, they are quite satisfied with the quality of training provided, with the results."

What about the place where the Czech contingent are based - how dangerous is that part of Iraq?

"Well, the area of responsibility of the multinational division south-east is regarded as a less dangerous area in Iraq. However the number of IED [improvised explosive device] attacks and small arms attacks and mortar attacks is growing, unfortunately. And our soldiers are exposed to the same level of potential danger as any member of any multinational division."

In recent weeks there has been a bit of an escalation of violence in Iraq, some people are talking about a possible slide into civil war - are you more concerned now about your soldiers?

"We still believe either religious or ethnic extremists will be so-called expelled from the society, by the power of the society. And we believe that civil war won't occur."

So you're optimistic about the future of Iraq?

"Well...we hope that the current parliament and legal government will take power and settle all these problems, all the ethnic disputes, and provide peaceful conditions for the future development of the Iraqi nation."

Finally, for the first time you aren't saying exactly when the Czech soldiers are going - you aren't giving a time or even a day. Why is that?

"Due to security reasons we don't want to declare an exact day, an exact time of departure and arrival in Basra, because we don't want to jeopardise this flight, jeopardise the people on board."