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Thai troops join Iraq force

The first troops will assess security before the arrival of the full 443-strong force.
The first troops will assess security before the arrival of the full 443-strong force.

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BANGKOK, Thailand -- The first contingent of Thai soldiers has left Bangkok for Iraq, where they will join a 10,000-strong Polish-led multinational peacekeeping force.

The 21 soldiers were flown out aboard a U.S. Air Force C-5 transport plane and will conduct a security evaluation before the arrival of the full force of 443 soldiers at a later date.

The departure of the troops comes as the Bush administration intensifies efforts through the United Nations to broaden international involvement in ending the post-war violence in Iraq. (U.S. turns to U.N. on Iraq)

Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra did not openly support the U.S.-led war on Iraq, but has expressed a willingness to participate in the reconstruction process.

However, the deployment of the troops has been criticized by opposition parties because the move was approved without first being debated in parliament.

Comprising largely of army engineers, guards and medical personnel the Thai troops will serve for six months based in the city of Karbala in central Iraq.

Departure delayed

The area they are expected to cover includes the holy city of Najaf, scene of last week's car bombing that killed a top Shi'ite cleric and more than 80 of his followers.

Speaking at the departure ceremony for the first troops, Supreme Commander General Surayud Chulanont said he did not think the danger was sufficient to deter Thailand.

"I don't think there will be any problems," he told reporters. "So far the situation has not been bad enough that it would stop us from sending our Thai troops."

The deployment was announced in July, but their departure was delayed amid security concerns in the wake of last month's bombing of the United Nations' headquarters in Baghdad.

That and the anticipated cost of keeping the troops in Iraq led to the government halving the originally announced deployment of 886 troops.

Thai military officials say all of the troops taking part in the Iraq force are volunteers with thousands of servicemen having put their name forward to take part.

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