KIEV, Ukraine – Ukraine's top defense and security body has decided to order the withdrawal of the nation's soldiers from Iraq, and the pullout will begin this month, officials said Tuesday.
The phased withdrawal will begin March 15, and 150 soldiers will leave Iraq in the first batch, Defense Minister Anatoly Gritsenko (search) said.
The National Security and Defense Council — headed by President Viktor Yushchenko (search) and including the foreign, defense and interior ministers, decided to order the pullout "after detailed consideration," Foreign Minister Borys Tarasyuk said, according to the Interfax news agency.
The decision was widely expected. Yushchenko had said Ukraine's 1,650-member contingent could be completely withdrawn by October, and would be reduced to some 700 troops by April.
Ukraine, which has lost 17 soldiers in Iraq, strongly opposed the U.S.-led war but later agreed to send a large contingent to serve under Polish command in the center and south of Iraq.
The troop deployment was widely seen as an effort by former President Leonid Kuchma (search) to repair relations with Washington, frayed by allegations that he had approved the sale of radar systems and other military equipment to Saddam Hussein's regime in violation of U.N. sanctions.
The deployment is deeply unpopular among Ukrainians, and one of Kuchma's last orders was to bring the troops home. In January, eight soldiers died in an explosion that Ukrainian defense officials described as a terrorist attack.