"Hungary May Speed Up Troops Withdrawal" -- Ian Traynor in The Guardian, 11/5/04:

Hungary may pull several hundred soldiers out of Iraq within weeks - and months ahead of schedule - the government in Budapest announced yesterday as several US allies in eastern and central Europe mulled over their options in Iraq.

In one of his first acts as Hungary's prime minister, Ferenc Gyurcsany, a millionaire leftwinger, said on Wednesday that he would withdraw the country's 300 soldiers from Iraq by March. But yesterday he told a press conference in Budapest that the troops could be home by the end of the year unless the opposition, fiercely opposed to the deployment, agreed to the extension.

The Czech Republic yesterday agreed to keep 100 police officers helping to train an Iraqi police force in Iraq until February. But they are then expected to be brought home. Bulgaria, too, announced a 1% cut in its contribution to the coalition forces in Iraq.

The most important US regional ally, Poland, with almost 2,500 troops in Iraq and in command of a sector of the country, is to start scaling back its presence from January, and hopes to have fully withdrawn its forces by the end of next year.

Several countries in the region, famously dubbed "new Europe" by the US defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, for their support of US policies, appear to be getting cold feet about their commitments in Iraq, eroding the broad coalition that George Bush claimed he had assembled.

The US secretary of state, Colin Powell, went to Budapest this year and pleaded for the central Europeans not to go "weak in the knees".

Two out of three Hungarians are against their country's deployment and the main opposition party, Fidesz, is insisting that the troops are home by Christmas. The Czech parliament yesterday voted to extend the mission of 100 police in Iraq by two months, until the end of February. But the defence minister, Karel Kuehnl, has made clear that he does not want the police units to remain beyond then. If the Czechs are still needed to train Iraqi police, he argued, the training could be done in the Czech Republic.

The numbers involved may be small, but they are cumulative. The Bulgarians, Moldova, Ukraine and perhaps some of the Baltic countries are all trying to reduce their troops in Iraq. The key country, however, is Poland where around 70% of those surveyed in opinion polls said they wanted the troops brought home. . . .

Poland's plans to limit its exposure in Iraq were upset by the withdrawal of the Spanish contingent last summer, since the Spaniards were supposed to take over the sector commanded by the Poles.

Ayad Allawi, the interim Iraqi prime minister, yesterday lobbied European countries to do more to stabilise his country. In Italy yesterday before travelling to an EU summit in Brussels, he pleaded with the Europeans "who up to now have been spectators _ to help create a better Iraq".

But the Netherlands, like Poland a strongly Atlanticist EU member, is also planning to pull its force of 1,400 out.