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420 Thai Troops Dispatched To Iraq


420 Thai Troops Dispatched To Iraq

By Richard S. Ehrlich

BANGKOK, Thailand -- Anxious to strengthen its military partnership with America and qualify as a "major non-NATO ally," Thailand has dispatched more than 420 troops to Iraq.

Wearing camouflage uniforms topped with berets and carrying U.S.-made M-16 assault rifles and other weapons, the biggest batch of a total of more than 420 mostly Buddhist Thai troops headed to Iraq on Sunday (Sept. 28) night.

"Thailand and the U.S. are allies,'' Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra said on Saturday (Sept. 27). "When the U.S. requests help from us, we respond. It is a gesture of hospitality."

Religious amulets, considered lucky by most Thais and usually worn on a necklace, were handed out by Thai officers to boost the soldiers' confidence, though Thai scholars insist amulets are a corrosive, superstitious belief which Buddhism is supposed to correct.

A small number of Thai female and Muslim soldiers were included in the contingent to ensure Islamic sensitivities are well-handled during body searches and other contact with Iraqis.

America trains Thai troops each year in military exercises in Thailand.

Thai officials were nervous, however, about sending soldiers to Iraq and insisted they were mostly engineers and others on a humanitarian mission who would shoot only in self-defense.

They are to be replaced in six months with a fresh batch of about 400 troops.

Thai officials played down fears that anti-American insurgents would consider the Thais legitimate targets because they were U.S. allies.

"I believe Thai troops are not the attackers' targets because we are there to help," said General Surayud Chulanont, the armed forces supreme commander who saluted their departure on Sunday night.

"He [Surayud] warned the soldiers to follow the strict code of conduct and customs, particularly the prohibition against physical contact with Muslim women," the Bangkok Post reported.

Thailand was earlier believed to be ready to send a total of about 800 troops to Iraq all at once, but worry about the unraveling security situation apparently prompted the number to be cut in half.

"No one feels safe in Iraq now, and not a day goes by without more civilians being killed or injured by U.S. soldiers or by armed groups acting with impunity," said London-based Amnesty International on Sept. 25, criticizing the lack of investigations whenever American soldiers kill civilians.

"U.S. forces are facing direct attacks and a serious law and order emergency, but that cannot be justification for a virtual licence to kill," the human rights group said.

"We admit the situation in Baghdad following the bomb attack on the U.N. headquarters is not good," Prime Minister Thaksin said in August.

Thai troops will be under Poland's command and be posted in Karbala where some Iraqis have expressed anger to foreign occupation.

Karbala is a holy city revered by Islam's minority Shia (Shiite) sect, who are considered heretics by the fundamentalist Sunni Muslims that Osama bin Laden, the Taliban and Saudi Arabia's Wahabi faction have drawn some support from.

In such an alien environment, the Thais may enjoy companionship with a contingent of about 180 Mongolian Army soldiers, who share some similar Tibetan Buddhist and Chinese traditions and who are also under Poland's command.

The Philippines -- a former U.S. colony in Southeast Asia which is currently fighting its own southern Muslim insurgency against Hispanic-borne, Catholic domination -- also agreed to send forces to Iraq.

When Prime Minister Thaksin met President George W. Bush in Washington in June, the White House announced "the United States is actively considering Thailand's designation as a Major Non-NATO Ally (MNNA)," to mark their close military ties.

The Thai public, meanwhile, has mixed opinions about the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq.

Some hope the war will end the spread of terrorism, while others fear it has worsened the danger.

"Thailand may be abundant in food, but it doesn't produce oil, so we may have to reconsider our position and continue to hold the farangs' [Caucasians'] toilet paper for some time to come," wrote a contributor to an online chat group dominated by anti-war comments and hosted by the website of Thailand's respected Nation newspaper.

When the U.S. began bombing Iraq, a small "stop the war" rally was held in Bangkok.

But many Thais are now more concerned about Southeast Asia's own Islam-inspired terrorism spreading in Thailand.

In Bangkok, souvenir sellers offer T-shirts emblazoned, "The Twin Terrorists," illustrated with portraits of President Bush and Mr. bin Laden.

Other T-shirts show Mr. bin Laden's head as a bull's eye target.

The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency benefited from Thailand's cooperation in August when they jointly captured Hambali -- also known as Riduan Isamuddin -- in the Thai city of Ayutthaya.

Hambali was a suspected leader of Indonesia's al Qaeda-inspired Jemaah Islamiyah militant organization.

Hambali is currently undergoing interrogation by the U.S. at an undisclosed site.

In Thailand's Muslim-majority south, meanwhile, Thai officials have suffered deadly hit-and-run attacks by a handful of local Islamic separatists for decades.

A few years ago, Thailand sent several hundred soldiers to East Timor to help stabilize the infant nation after it broke from Indonesia's domination, but that was under a U.N. mandate.

Thailand also sent forces to Afghanistan to support the U.S.-led occupation.

*****

Richard S. Ehrlich, a freelance journalist who has reported news from Asia for the past 25 years, is co-author of the non-fiction book, "HELLO MY BIG BIG HONEY!" -- Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews. His web page is http://www.geocities.com/glossograph/

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