KIEV, Ukraine – President Leonid Kuchma (search) on Monday ordered the foreign and defense ministries to develop a plan for withdrawing Ukraine's troops from Iraq within months, his office said.
Ukraine (search), whose 1,650 troops are the fourth-largest contingent in the U.S.-led operation in Iraq, previously expressed intentions to withdraw this year, but Kuchma's order speeds up the apparent timetable.
That order came a day after eight Ukrainian soldiers died in an explosion at an ammunition dump in Iraq, which was reported as an accident.
In all, 16 Ukrainian soldiers have died in Iraq.
"The situation in Iraq has deteriorated and as a consequence we lost our men," acting Defense Minister Oleksandr Kuzmuk was quoted as saying by the Interfax news agency after meeting with Kuchma.
Kuzmuk added that the withdrawal could begin in March.
Ukraine strongly opposed the U.S.-led war on Iraq, but later agreed to send troops in an apparent effort to patch up relations frayed by allegations that Kuchma approved the sale of radar systems and other military equipment to Saddam Hussein's regime in contravention of U.N. sanctions.
Although Kuchma is expected to leave office within days to be replaced by Viktor Yushchenko (search), the winner of last month's presidential elections based on preliminary results, the change of leadership is unlikely to affect Ukraine's policy on Iraq. Yushchenko also has promised to withdraw soldiers from Iraq.
His campaign manager, Oleksandr Zinchenko, said Monday that withdrawal was a difficult procedure burdened with political, financial, military and diplomatic details, but he stressed that the issue would be one of Yushchenko's top concerns.
"I can only say that the promise that ... Yushchenko made to the Ukrainian people would be kept," Interfax quoted him as saying.
The withdrawal could be a symbolically significant blow against the U.S.-led operation, not only because of the Ukrainian contingent's size but because of the country's reputation for eagerly participating in dangerous peacekeeping missions.
It was a major component of the ill-fated peacekeeping operations in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1992-1995 and currently has peacekeepers in Sierra Leone. Kuchma recently endorsed sending troops to participate in the U.N. observer mission in the Golan Heights.