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Terror fears rising among countries with troops in Iraq

Wednesday, March 17, 2004

From Poland to Australia, countries with troops in Iraq fear they could be the next terrorist target as signs increase that Islamic extremists were behind last week's carnage in Spain.

Take Poland, once isolated behind the Iron Curtain and now a key U.S. ally in Iraq: Security officials here acknowledge they have virtually no experience dealing with terrorism, and leaders are warning citizens to wake up to the threat.

Most nations contributing to the Iraq mission say they will remain in the peacekeeping force despite the Madrid bombings, which killed 201 people Thursday.

But Prime Minister-elect Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero announced that he would withdraw Spain's 1,300 peacekeepers by June 30 unless the United Nations takes over in Iraq.

Honduras exits

Honduras, which also was scheduled to end its mission at that time, said Tuesday it plans to bring home its 370 troops and would extend "only if the United Nations asks."

The events in Spain have raised the specter that al-Qaida -- if indeed it was responsible -- may seek to influence elections elsewhere with strategically timed attacks, though government officials generally deny the link.

Denmark, a country with low crime and few visible security jitters after the Madrid attacks, would seem an unlikely target. But it sent 410 troops to Iraq, and a local analyst said the Spanish election sent "an unfortunate signal that international terror pays."

"Now they will try to repeat the success in other countries that have supported the war against terror, hoping they can scare them to pull out the troops," Peter Viggo Jacobsen of the Danish Institute for International Studies told The Associated Press.

Even more exposed is Poland, which Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld put in the category of "new Europe" Iraq war supporters. It commands a 9,500-strong multinational force as part of the 36-nation coalition.

A November poll found that 75 percent of Poles feared their country's role in Iraq would lead to a terrorist attack at home. Since the Madrid bombings, Poland has increased security at airports, train stations and borders.

In Italy, whose next election is scheduled for 2006, leaders insist the country would be a target even if it hadn't contributed 3,000 troops to Iraq -- a commitment the government said it would not change. Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said that Morocco has also been hit by terror attacks, and that countries like Germany and France, which opposed war in Iraq, do not consider themselves safe.

French officials announced Tuesday they are investigating threats issued by a radical Islamic group against France and its overseas interests. The shadowy group identified itself as the "Servants of Allah the Powerful and Wise," the ministry said in a statement, adding that the group was unknown to French authorities.

Australia -- which goes to the polls later this year -- has, like Spain, been a staunch supporter of the U.S.-led war on terror. President Bush even described Prime Minister John Howard as his "sheriff" in Asia.

Howard acknowledges a terror menace, but denies that it is any worse since his government sent 2,000 troops to join the U.S.-led war in Iraq last year. About 850 remain.

But even an FBI agent visiting Sydney warned Tuesday that Australia should brace for an attack because of its close ties to Washington.

"Any country that allies itself with the United States, unfortunately, is a target," John Pistole, the FBI's executive assistant director for counterterrorism, told Sydney's 2UE radio station. "I would agree with the statement that an attack is likely inevitable."

People in Azerbaijan worried that their government's support of the U.S.-led war on terror and the contribution of troops to peacekeeping efforts in Iraq might make even their predominantly Muslim country a target.

"It's bad that Azerbaijan so clearly supports the anti-terror coalition, because our country is not strong enough to defend itself," said 32-year-old Vadim Stroyev, a computer programmer in the capital, Baku. "We could end up with the same kind of fanatics who carried out the terrorist act in Spain."

Ukraine has 1,650 troops serving under Polish command in Iraq, and Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych is "very anxious" about that in light of the Madrid bombings, his spokesman said Tuesday.

But Ukrainian officials made clear there were no plans to pull out.


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