BUDAPEST, Hungary – Hungary will withdraw its 300 non-combat troops from Iraq by the end of March, the country's new prime minister said Wednesday, dealing a blow to the United States' effort to hold the Iraq multinational force together.
The former communist country, which joined the European Union in May, sent the troops as part of the U.S.-led coalition, but the government has been under mounting pressure at home to pull out.
Recent polls had shown that around 60 percent of Hungarians wanted an immediate withdrawal. Hungary has a transportation contingent of 300 troops in Iraq stationed in Hillah, south of Baghdad.
President Bush has struggled to keep the U.S.-led multinational force from unraveling since Spain pulled out its 1,300 troops earlier this year.
Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany (search) said Hungary's troops will leave by March 31, after elections in Iraq slated for the end of January.
"We are obliged to stay there until the elections. To stay longer is an impossibility," Gyurcsany said at a ceremony to mark the end of mandatory military service in Hungary.
Hungary's Defense Minister Ferenc Juhasz had said the government would await the outcome of the U.S. presidential election before making the decision about the troops.
There were no immediate signs Wednesday that other coalition members were considering pulling out their troops.
Denmark's prime minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen (search), said his country's 501 troops in the southern Iraqi port city of Basra "will stay ... as long as needed so the Iraqis can be helped to become masters in their own homes."
But Fogh Rasmussen added: "We don't want to be there one day more than necessary. The goal is to get out of Iraq."
Concerns about Hungary's security increased after the country was specifically mentioned in a message attributed to Al Qaeda as a terrorist target.
"The threat to Hungary is no longer at its borders but often far away," Gyurcsany said. "One of the most important conditions for creating order in Iraq lies ahead of us: the elections at the end of January. After that, the conditions for democratic order, peace and security can be created."
"Therefore, by March 31, 2005, we will bring our troops back from Iraq. From then on, the existence of a stable democratic and safe Iraq has to be created by different means, above all political means. If Iraq is not safe, Hungary [is] not safe," he said.
Parliament last year authorized Hungary's military mission until Dec. 31. The government will ask parliament on Monday to extend the mandate of the Hungarian troops by three months, Defense Ministry spokesman Peter Matyuc said.
One Hungarian soldier has died in Iraq, killed when a roadside bomb exploded by the water-carrying convoy he was guarding.
Gyurcsany, who was elected in September, said last month he did not believe in pre-emptive war.
"Personally, as the father of four children, as a young man, as a working Hungarian who trusts in the future, and as head of government, I believe not in preventive war but in policies which prevent conflicts," Gyurcsany said at the time.
Gyurcsany — a wealthy businessman who replaced ousted Prime Minister Peter Medgyessy (search) — said in October that the future of the troops was "one of the most important decisions" faced by his new government.
In a telephone conversation with Bush last month, Gyurcsany said his government would "stress continuity in its foreign policy" and remain a "predictable, trustworthy and stable" partner of international cooperation.