Cablegate: Two Latvian Soldiers Killed in Iraq, Government Officials

DE RUEHRA #1056/01 3631538
R 291538Z DEC 06




E.O. 12958: N/A

Ref: Riga 1022

1. SUMMARY. The deaths of two Latvian soldiers in Iraq December 27
has topped all news in Latvia in the aftermath. Despite nearly 80
percent public opposition to the mission, senior officials have
clearly stated that Latvia will remain in Iraq. Opposition
political leaders, and even some members of the coalition, have
suggested that parliament should review Latvia's deployment in Iraq
and consider an exit strategy, but appear to favor a deliberate and
considered approach over an immediate withdrawal. Press coverage of
the incident has been factual and editorial writing has been
predictable. Those who supported the deployment want it to
continue, those who have always opposed it, want to see it ended.
With the relative quiet of the holiday period, we will need to wait
until January to measure the full impact of this incident. End

2. On December 27, a group of Latvian soldiers on patrol outside
their base in Diwaniyah suffered what appears to be an IED explosion
under the US-provided HMMWV in which they were riding. Two
soldiers, Private First Class Gints Bleija, 25, and Private First
Class Vitalijs Vasiljevs, 24, were killed in the attack. Three
other soldiers were injured. Two of those suffered only minor
injuries and will be returned to duty, while the third suffered more
serious injuries and has been evacuated to the American Army
hospital in Landstuhl for treatment. The bodies are expected back
in Latvia in early January when state funerals will likely be held.
Latvia previously suffered only one combat death in Iraq when an EOD
expert was killed in 2004 in the course of his duties.

3. Since the incident, Ambassador Bailey has been in telephone
contact with the Ministers of Defense and Foreign Affairs and the
offices of the President and Prime Minister to express our
condolences and she will be sending letters to all senior government
officials and the families of the deceased. Embassy personnel will
participate in events related to the deaths of the two soldiers as

4. While expressing condolences to the relatives of the victims,
Latvia's senior officials indicated on December 27 that the
casualties would not provoke the withdrawal of troops from Iraq.
President Vaira Vike-Freiberga, Prime Minister Aigars Kalvitis,
Defense Minister Atis Slakteris and parliament's Defense, Internal
Affairs and Anti-Corruption Committee chair Juris Dalbins have all
rejected any suggestion that this incident should prompt a pullout
of troops from Iraq. Dalbins reiterated that on December 14 the
Saeima (parliament) had extended the troop mandate in Iraq through
the end of 2007 (reftel). Foreign Minister Pabriks said that
Latvia's participation in international operations was inevitable,
and that by helping stabilize the situation in Iraq the Latvian
soldiers were making a contribution towards strengthening the
security of Latvia and its NATO allies. Defense minister Slakteris
has noted that there are already plans to reduce the size of the
Latvian contingent in Iraq in 2007.

5. Former Minister of Defense and current European Parliament deputy
Girts Kristovskis (Fatherland and Freedom/LNNK) noted that this
incident should not serve as the grounds for aborting the mission in
Iraq. He acknowledged, however, that Latvia's participation in the
mission should be evaluated and debated not only by senior officials
but by the general public as well. New Era, the largest opposition
party, says it is not going to urge that the troops be recalled
immediately, but New Era's MP and former Defense Minister Linda
Murniece urged the government to come up a plan outlining "how and
when Latvia will leave Iraq." The deputy chair of the parliament's
Defense and Internal Affairs Committee Juris Dobelis from the
nationalist Fatherland and Freedom/LNNK party has called for a troop
pullout on a shorter timeline and said he believes there should be
an immediate debate in parliament on the issue.

6. Much of the press reporting to date has been factual, noting
especially that all Latvians deployed to Iraq volunteer for the
mission. In fact, this was Vasilejvs's second tour in Iraq.
Editorial writers have been mixed, with the more elite press
focusing on the need to continue the mission and the value to Latvia
in participating in international security operations, while the
more populist press and Russian language press says that this
incident highlights the need for Latvia to get out of Iraq.

7. Comment: Latvia's political leaders have reacted calmly and
maturely to this incident, focusing on the sacrifice that all
soldiers know they may be asked to make and praising the
professionalism of the Latvian military. Even opponents of the
mission have been responsible in their criticism. Polling from
October 2006 showed that 78.9 percent of Latvians oppose the
deployment for Iraq, a figure that has changed little from past
years. So far that opposition has been rather muted, but as
Latvians return from their holidays and parliament returns to
session in early January, we can expect to see some increase in
average people voicing opposition to the mission.

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