by Mario de Queiroz
(IPS) LISBON --
Iraq turns into a serious problem for the U.S.-led occupying forces, Portugal's government has reaffirmed its steadfast alliance with Washington, keeping its pledge to send small force of soldiers to the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriyah.
Portugal confirmed the dispatch of a Republican National Guard (GNR) unit of 128 soldiers despite the deadly attack Wednesday in that city, where an explosion of a car-bomb at a military barracks killed at least 31, among them 17 Italians -- 11 'carabinieri', or militarized police -- four soldiers and two civilians and eight Iraqis.
The conservative government of Prime Minister Jose Manuel Dur o Barroso is making it clear that it remains among the firmest allies of the United States, particularly in regards to its Iraq policy.
A spokesperson from the Ministry of Interior, which oversees the GNR, an equivalent of the Italian carabinieri, told IPS that all of the plans remain the same, "without any modification."
The Portuguese presence in Iraq will be mostly symbolic, but for the Dur o Barroso government it is an important signal sent to Washington, especially when even the United Nations and International Red Cross are reducing their missions in the Arab nation to the minimum -- and U.S. military casualties are a daily occurrence.
Portugal's president, socialist Jorge Sampaio, loudly objected to sending a division of paratroopers to Iraq, forcing the prime minister to look for a compromise.
The dispatch of the militarized police "on a mission of peace and public order" was acceptable to Sampaio, who is head of state.
The compromise also seems to have calmed the editors of the country's leading news media, which tend to have an editorial line supporting the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq.
Dur o Barroso bid farewell on Tuesday to the 128 men, who will arrive in Nasiriyah on Thursday and will be under Italian command as part of the British military coalition in charge of the southern zone of Iraq.
The prime minister said on that occasion, "There was debate in Portugal, but the competent bodies of our democracy, government and parliament, took a decision" with respect to this contribution to the occupation of Iraq.
He also urged "solidarity from all Portuguese citizens with the men and women who are going to carry out a mission that entails risk."
But the appeal found little resonance amongst the population, which mostly opposes the expedition, and none from the political opposition.
According to an opinion poll released Wednesday -- conducted by Lusomundo, the leading local media group -- 80.4 percent of respondents said they oppose sending troops to Iraq. The rest were in favor.
Eduardo Ferro Rodrigues, leader of the Socialist Party, the main opposition force, asked Dur o Barroso to wait a few days "in order to assess the situation and also for practical reasons, given that the Italian barracks where the Portuguese police were to stay were totally destroyed" in Wednesday's attack.
The leader of the Leftist Bloc, Francisco Louća, went even further: "The prime minister is personally responsible for the political decision to send soldiers to Iraq, in an operation of international piracy and pillage," he said in comments to IPS.
The Communist Party resoundingly criticized the "likely sacrifice of Portuguese soldiers" and said that since Dur o Barroso took office in April 2002 he has established himself as "a puppet of the United States" in the heart of the European Union.
Lisbon's stance was interpreted in different ways by two national and international policy analysts consulted by IPS.
José Carlos de Vasconcelos, editorial director of the Impresa Group, which controls several weeklies, a radio network and the TV station with the largest viewing audience in Portugal, said he had always been "against the war in Iraq without the green light from the UN Security Council."
"Now, considering that the GNR agents are volunteers, I remain unconvinced by the military operation in Iraq, especially given the continued casualties. But I don't think we should oppose a peace mission" that has UN backing, said Vasconcelos.
According to Augusto Vilela, former communications director of Macao until the Portuguese enclave was handed over to China in 1999, "the sending of troops to Iraq is not only useless, it is a serious commitment by the government to a war that was overwhelmingly opposed by the Portuguese public."
"No matter what the Washington strategists say, what is happening in that Arab country is not terrorism, but a genuine guerrilla war, similar to many others that the world has seen in occupied countries, where the population is faced with a militarily powerful invading force," said Vilela.
"The United States uses its economic, technological and military might to put into practice a reversal for civilization: it is the Middle Ages with smart bombs in the hands of mediocre politicians," he said.
"In this context, the GNR in Iraq is a politically condemnable and dangerous political venture," stated Vilela.
Besides Portugal, the United States has other allies in the EU: Britain, Denmark, Italy, Netherlands and Spain.
But polls conducted here at the beginning of the year by Portugal's Catholic University found that the public's opposition to the war reached 87 percent.
The rest of the European bloc, led by France and Germany and including Austria, Belgium, Finland, Greece, Ireland, Luxembourg and Sweden, opposed the military solution, the invasion of Iraq by U.S. and British forces on March 20.
But the real military contribution from Portugal has been the Lajes airbase, a sort of giant aircraft carrier anchored at Terceira, one of the Azores Islands in the Atlantic Ocean, approximately 1,500 km from the European continent.
On Jan. 31, Dur o Barroso gave the United States authorization to use the base, which has served as a refuelling station for U.S. aircraft en route to the Middle East, and for reconnaissance missions.
The concern now is the possibility of casualties among the 128 GNR men, who volunteered for the duty of patrolling the streets of what was considered one of the most peaceful cities in occupied Iraq.
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