KIEV, Ukraine – President Viktor Yushchenko (search) confirmed Thursday that Ukraine's troops will leave Iraq by the end of the year.
"It will be by mid-October, but I don't exclude that this date can be changed a little. But for sure our troops will leave Iraq this year," Yushchenko said at a briefing for foreign journalists ahead of his trip to the United States that begins Sunday.
Ukraine this year began withdrawing its 1,650 troops, the fourth-largest non-U.S. contingent in Iraq, but the timing of the complete withdrawal has remained unclear. Eighteen Ukrainian soldiers have been killed in Iraq and more than two dozen have been wounded, fueling public dismay about the unpopular deployment.
The troop pullout was one of the new president's campaign promises.
Ukraine strongly opposed the U.S.-led war but later agreed to send a large contingent to serve under Polish command in central and southern Iraq.
The deployment was widely seen as an effort by former President Leonid Kuchma (search) to repair relations with Washington, frayed by allegations that he approved the sale of radar systems to Saddam Hussein's regime in violation of U.N. sanctions.
Ukraine's participation in the U.S.-led coalition is deeply unpopular at home, but Yushchenko has said Ukraine should keep a presence in Iraq and take part in development and reconstruction efforts there.
"We are strategic partners. I want U.S. ministers to know the way to Kiev, to know their Ukrainian counterparts," Yushchenko said. "Ukraine has the aim of playing a major role in international policy."
Top issues to be discussed on his trip, which will include meetings with President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, include the role the United States can play in settling the conflict in Trans-Dniester (search), an ethnic Russian separatist region of Moldova that borders Ukraine, Yushchenko said.
He also said he hopes to ease visa restrictions between Ukraine and the United States, pointing to his recent decree abolishing visa requirements for citizens of European Union countries visiting Ukraine.
Yushchenko, who was badly disfigured by dioxin poisoning during his presidential campaign in September, indicated Thursday that the effects of the poisoning continue to plague him.
"I wouldn't want that any other persons would have my problem," he said. "This problem is very sensitive for me, it is very delicate for me."
Yushchenko fell ill within hours of having dinner with security-service officials, raising speculation that his food was laced by political opponents in Kuchma's government. He said Thursday that an investigation of the poisoning has specified "the names of persons who have done this, persons at very high levels." But he did not give details.