Friday, June 5, 2009

Romanian contingent ends Iraq deployment

By KIM GAMEL – 14 hours ago

BAGHDAD (AP) — Romania's 366-strong military contingent ended its deployment in Iraq on Thursday, reducing the U.S.-led coalition to three countries. In Iraq's north, another U.S. soldier died in combat.

The alliance that once included nearly 40 countries has been whittled down as the Americans themselves prepare for a full withdrawal from the country by the end of 2011.

The Americans have nearly 140,000 troops left in Iraq, according to the U.S. military.

President Barack Obama reassured Iraqis in a speech in Cairo on Thursday that the United States would stick to the timeline dictated by a security agreement, with the first step to pull back from cities by July.

But anti-U.S. Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr — whose militia fighters waged fierce battles with the Americans before a cease-fire in 2007 — was skeptical U.S. policy would change after Obama's speech in Cairo.

"It is not up to Obama to change U.S. policies, because there are specialists who determine these policies that were and still are hostile to Islam and these policies will continue," al-Sadr said in a statement, calling on the "resistance" to continue.

Several high-profile bombings in recent months have raised concerns that insurgents are regrouping to undermine confidence in the government as the Americans reduce their presence.

In violence Thursday, a U.S. soldier was killed in a grenade attack during a patrol in the disputed northern city of Kirkuk, the military said.

A suicide car bomber also targeted a security convoy in the northern city of Mosul, killing at least one bystander and wounding 16, according to police.

The Romanian force was among a handful that has remained in Iraq after the Jan. 1 expiry of the U.N. mandate that governed the presence of the U.S.-led coalition force in Iraq.

Aside from the United States, the remaining troops come from Britain and Australia.

Australia has announced it will formally end its military mission at the end of July, while Britain has pulled out most of its troops but is leaving about 400 behind for training and support missions, mainly to defend oil platforms in the Gulf.

At its height, the coalition numbered about 300,000 soldiers from 38 countries — 250,000 from the United States, about 40,000 from Britain, and the rest ranging from 2,000 Australians to 70 Albanians.

Romanian President Traian Basescu paid tribute to Romanian troops who had served in the country's six-year mission in Iraq, particularly the two soldiers who had died there.

"However much we honor their memory we can never give back (them) back to their families," he said, his voice breaking with emotion during a ceremony at a military base in the southern city of Nasiriyah.

NATO-member Romania is known for its pro-US stance, a position that has strengthened since Basescu was elected president in 2004. The military mission in Iraq was its first to serve abroad in six decades.

Several members of the Romanian military will remain behind in Iraq to help with reconstruction projects.

Associated Press Writers Sameer N. Yacoub in Baghdad and Alison Mutler in Bucharest contributed to this report.

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