8 January 2004
AMSTERDAM — In a lightning visit to Dutch peacekeeping troops in Iraq, Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende moved on Wednesday to restore morale among disgruntled soldiers after the arrest last month of one of their colleagues for allegedly murdering an Iraqi civilian.
The prime minister arrived at nightfall (3.15pm Dutch time) and stayed for four hours in the southern Iraqi city of As Samawah, where the Dutch troops are based. He travelled safely back home to the Netherlands on Wednesday night.
Planning for the visit took place amid deep secrecy several weeks ago and the final decision to go ahead with the plan was taken earlier this week, an NOS news report said. The visit was not previously announced to ensure Balkenende’s safety.
The visit came on the same day that a 43-year-old sergeant-major, identified as Erik O., was released from detention in Soesterberg after an Arnhem judge ruled that there was insufficient evidence to warrant his continued remand on allegations he murdered a suspected Iraqi looter.
The Iraqi was shot as Dutch soldiers dispersed about 70 looters near As Samawah on 27 December and the arrested suspect was flown home to the Netherlands on 1 January. Despite his release from detention, the Defence Ministry has said the man will not immediately return to duties in Iraq.
The Public Prosecution Office (OM) is continuing its inquiries into the matter, but will not appeal the decision to release the man.
And in a public address to gathered troops, Balkenende said the Dutch government fully supported the 1,170 soldiers stationed in Iraq during “difficult and uncertain times”. His statement explicitly referred to the recent arrest of the marine.
“I am very conscious of the pain that you have in the aftermath of the shooting incident,” he said. “This was not a decision made by the military or politicians.”
The Christian Democrat CDA leader also said that the commotion which had erupted in the Netherlands over the shooting demonstrated the strength of the public’s sympathy for the peacekeeping troops.
But after the conclusion of his visit, Balkenende said the trip was not connected to the shooting incident or the arrest of the marine. Despite the denial, Defence State Secretary Cees van der Knaap said the recent publicity around the arrest made the prime minister’s visit a timely chance to boost the morale of troops, news agency ANP reported.
The prime minister also denied that uncertainty has been expressed about the rules of violent engagement issued to the peacekeeping troops. Defence Minister Henk Kamp also said earlier this week the rules of engagement were clear and would not be modified.
The arrest of the marine has cause great consternation among the Dutch troops, many of whom have expressed concern that while they are doing their best to maintain security in the Al Muthanna province, their designated patrol region, one of their colleagues has been made a suspect.
A report from Radio 1 indicated that the prime minister failed to completely remove the uncertainty and anger that has developed among marines. Several soldiers refused to comment on Balkenende’s speech and some suggested he “should return back to his post”.
The Dutch battalion commandant, Lieutenant-Colonel Richard Oppelaar, also refused to comment about the matter with journalists who accompanied the prime minister to Iraq.
But after the visit ended, he said Dutch officials were talking with the family of the deceased Iraqi over the payment of compensation. Oppelaar also said the local Iraqi population had not turned against the Dutch troops in reaction to the shooting.
Balkenende’s visit took place after British Prime Minister Tony Blair visited his nation’s troops in Iraq last Sunday. US President George Bush also made a surprise, lightning visit last year to coincide with Thanksgiving celebrations.
[Copyright Expatica News 2004]
Subject: Dutch news + Iraq