Iraqi exile meeting rattles Hungarian town

Several thousand Iraqi opposition activists are due in Hungary; residents are worried about security.

The recent resignation of Taszar's longtime mayor foisted an unenviable task on Tibor Mercz, the village's acting mayor: to assuage anxiety among its 2,100 inhabitants about what the new year may bring.

Later this month or early in February, several thousand Iraqi opposition activists will arrive to train with US troops as part of a potential Iraq liberation force.

The mission was a key test for Hungary's new government in the eyes of Western powers; relations between Washington and its previous right-wing government had been eroding, and some had questioned Hungary's commitment to NATO, which it joined in 1999. Hungarian officials feel their approval of the training at Taszar puts them squarely in the camp of active and responsible NATO members. But it's raising some questions at home.

"We have no idea what kind of 'Christmas present' we'll be receiving," says one Hungarian official, on condition of anonymity. "We won't know who these people are, or what kind of security problems they may cause."

The US is well acquainted with Taszar. US-led peacekeepers began using its cold war-era base and airfield as a staging ground for Bosnia in late 1995. The base also figured prominently during NATO's 1999 airstrikes against Yugoslavia.

Yet the upcoming mission - in which Iraqi emigres, most of whom have been living in Europe and North America, will reportedly receive 90 days of training as translators, guides, and civilian administrators for a post-Hussein government - stirs greater anxiety among the locals. Many Hungarians worry that if the Arab world views the Iraqi oppositionists as traitors or US puppets, Hungary may become a target for terrorism.

"It's not that we're afraid of foreigners coming here - we're used to it," says Mr. Mercz, a volunteer politician and full-time machinist. "But that they're Arabs, it's different. The suicide bombings, revenge mentality ... how might the Arab world react?"

Nevertheless, Hungary was relatively quick to agree to host the Iraqis - on the conditions that they not leave the base, and that they sign contracts as US employees. Much was riding on Budapest's decision.

When Hungary slipped the Soviet yoke in 1989, the achievement of full membership in NATO and the European Union became the centerpiece of its foreign policy. A nation of 10 million with a 1,100-year history of invasion by major powers and a knack for losing wars, Hungary saw the prospect of joining "the West" as necessary not only to ensure against any future aggression from Russia, but because of a sentiment about the rightful place of a nation that has contributed greatly to Western culture.

But when Hungary was finally admitted to NATO in 1999, the country got a reputation as something of a "free rider" within the 19-member alliance for failing to satisfactorily upgrade its military capability and interoperability.

"The instinct was to goof off, as if, 'We just graduated from high school. Now we want a break,' " says Bruce Jackson, president of the US Committee on NATO, a bipartisan, proexpansion group. "NATO allies tried to remind them that: 'You just got into college. The homework goes up; there's more to do; the responsibilities are greater.' "

At the same time, former Prime Minister Viktor Orban was gradually marching Hungary rightward, with nationalist policies and by appealing to a xenophobic, anti-Semitic party that controlled some 5 percent of seats in parliament.

The final straw is said to have come after Sept. 11. While Mr. Orban condemned the attacks and expressed solidarity with America, far-right Hungarian politician Istvan Csurka publicly proclaimed that the US had gotten what it deserved. Orban's failure to publicly rebuke Mr. Csurka was compounded - in US eyes - by Hungary's position as the only NATO member with a military not to contribute to the war in Afghanistan.

When Orban visited the US prior to Hungary's elections in April, President Bush snubbed him, and Orban then narrowly lost the vote. The new moderate leaders quickly set about to improve the nation's image - if only, some speculate, to make the former regime look bad. Their approval of the Taszar request came a day after they announced a decision to send 50 medics to support US-led operations in Afghanistan.

But many of their constituents are leery of sending combat troops abroad - though some 800 Hungarian peacekeeping troops serve overseas. Some also yearn for neutrality, to be a "Hungarian Switzerland." Moreover, military spending is not particularly popular as Hungarians endure a difficult transition to free-market capitalism.

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