BANGKOK, Thailand – Thailand's prime minister vowed Sunday to keep his nation's troops in Iraq despite calls from the opposition for a withdrawal following the death of two Thai soldiers in the southern city of Karbala (search).
The two soldiers -- the first fatalities among its noncombatant force in Iraq -- were on guard duty when a car rammed the wall of their camp in Karbala and exploded Saturday, Thai officials said.
"We will continue to work for humanitarian ends ... The next batch of troops are preparing and making themselves ready. They are ready to go to Iraq as scheduled. Nobody has changed their mind, their morale is still good," Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra (search) told reporters.
He said the two soldiers were "brave," standing guard even after military officials received intelligence reports suggesting there would be an attack. "We honor them and will take good care of their families. They will be compensated," Thaksin added.
The Nation newspaper reported that Thai military commanders held an emergency meeting late Saturday after hearing the news.
Army spokesman Col. Somkuan Saengpataraneth said he believes they are the first Thai soldiers to be killed on the battlefield outside of the country since the Vietnam War (search).
Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Kraisak Choonhavan, a strong opponent of the decision to deploy the troops, said Thai soldiers are not safe there and should not have to "sacrifice their lives for nothing."
"I have called several other senators who have supported my idea of making another request to the government to withdraw from Iraq," he told reporters.
Following the Thai decision to deploy troops to Iraq, President Bush in October awarded Thailand non-NATO ally status, opening the door to priority military aid. A withdrawal of Thai troops from Iraq could jeopardize that deal.
Thaksin said Bush telephoned him early Sunday to send his condolences to the families of the soldiers and to praise the bravery of Thai troops.
Thailand's chief of military civilian affairs, Lt. Gen. Pisanu Urailert, said the army was not discussing the possibility of withdrawing its troops and that Thai soldiers would "continue to carry out their humanitarian work ... as assigned by the government."
Thailand sent 422 soldiers to Iraq in September to provide medical services and to help rebuild roads and other infrastructure destroyed during the war. A similar number of soldiers are expected to deploy in March.
The Thai contingent, deployed near Karbala, about 60 miles south of Baghdad, had previously suffered no fatalities.
The bodies of the two soldiers are scheduled to arrive in Bangkok on Tuesday.