A U.S. base in Hungary is being used to train Iraqi opposition exiles to perform civilian duties for the military if war breaks out. But local residents shun the international attention and fear a terrorist attack.
For Iraqi opposition volunteers, this Hungarian village could be the first stop in the long journey home.
TASZAR, HUNGARY (DW) -- A silver and blue bus passes along the main road to Taszar. The road ends at the Kapos Air Base, which is run by the U.S. military. It's -20 degrees celsius (-4 degrees fahrenheit), and the streets are covered in a thick sheet of ice. People linger outside, but nobody in the village seems to know much about the new arrivals.
"We only know that they are from Iraqi opposition groups and that they are being trained here. We don’t know what kind of training, who they are or where they are from," Taszar Mayor Tibor Mercz tells DW-WORLD in his office, only 300 yards up the road from Kapos.
The United States has chosen the base at Taszar to train as many as 3,000 Iraqi opposition volunteers for the eventuality of a war against Iraq. The U.S. government says they are here to be trained as translators and administrators and, although they will not be trained as soldiers, they will be given lessons in self-defense.
That Hungary is even allowing Washington to run the project at Taszar is symbolic of how much closer the two countries have grown in recent months. Relations between Washington and Budapest's previous conservative government had long been eroding, and some have even questioned Hungary's commitment to NATO, which it joined in 1999. Indeed, Hungary is the only NATO member with a military that did not contribute to the war in Afghanistan.
But Hungary's new moderate government has made overtures to Washington, and it reached an agreement with the Americans swiftly over the use of the Taszar base. Hungarian Prime Minister Peter Medgyessy was even one of the eight European leaders who signed a letter of support for Washington's Iraq policies published in the Wall Street Journal Europe last week.
Nonetheless, the government did attach certain conditions to the request. The Hungarians stipulated that the visiting Iraqis not be trained for combat and that they not leave the base during their stay. The Iraqi opposition figures must also leave Hungary as soon as their training is over.
The U.S. first took over the base from the Hungarian military in 1995 and used it as a logistical staging post for international peacekeeping missions in Bosnia. At that time, there were few complaints.
But in a country where support for a war against Iraq is scant, it comes as no surprise that residents of this small village, which is located about 120 miles southwest of Budapest, have been suspicious of the Iraqi exiles. The dearth of information about what's happening inside Taszar hasn't helped, either. What they do know comes from the press, and that's usually no more than their own mayor can tell them. American and Hungarian officials are strictly controlling any information about what goes on behind the barbed wire fence at the Kapos base.
A wary public, terrorism fears
A man pedaling a rickety bicycle pulls up at the local shop. He's a bit baffled and says he doesn’t understand why the Iraqis are being trained for a desert war in the snow-covered fields of southern Hungary.
"They should go and make problems somewhere else. Hungary always has to kiss someone’s backside -- first the Russians and now the Americans," he says.
Others are worried about security. Now that Taszar is on the map, they fear the village could become a terrorist target. Soldiers and police are everywhere in the town, and the atmosphere near the gate is especially tense. Security at the air base has been beefed up in order to calm fears among Taszar's 2,100 residents. Helicopters and surface-to-air missiles guard the base, and Hungarian soldiers continuously patrol the perimeter.
The whispers have continued to grow in recent weeks, and for several days now, the U.S. military has been seeking to calm Taszar residents. To gauge the level of their concern, one need only peruse the findings of recent public opinion polls: Two-thirds of Hungarians say they oppose the U.S. military project, and 80 percent oppose a war against Iraq.
U.S.: They'll be translators and administrators
Earlier this week, the general in charge of the camp invited news crews in for a brief glimpse in the base.
Major General David Barnow of the U.S. military and colleague.
Major General David Barno (photo) explained that the Iraqi recruits would not be put through any kind of combat training, but that they would be taught to become translators and administrators -- positions that will be important during a war with Iraq and the subsequent nation-building process that would inevitably follow one.
"That would include such tasks as civil military support working in a civilian infrastructure, in assisting and reconstructing that infrastructure," he explained. "It could also include roles as interpreters and guides based upon their knowledge of the area. Finally, it would include possibilities like rear-area security forces such as guards. So, these are not being trained as combat forces," Barno said.
In an interview with DW-WORLD, U.S. Army spokesman Major Robert Stern explained the reasoning behind Taszar's selection for the sensitive training program -- an explanation that had a ring of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's "Old Europe" versus "New Europe" to it.
"This location is being used because we asked our friends and ally, the Hungarians, if we can use Taszar Air Base for this important training mission, and they said yes -- our friend and our ally said yes," Stern said.
Main entrance to the Kazar military base
But Hungary's role in the project is limited to protecting the entrances to the facility and ensuring the safety of local residents.
A spokesman for the Hungarian Defense Ministry, Dezsö Kiss, said Hungarian soldiers did not take part in the activities inside Kapos. "They've all been briefed and, of course, they have other sources of information like the media," he said.
But the media have delivered precious little information from Taszar so far because the U.S. has banned journalists from accessing the opposition Iraqis being trained there.
To appease his constituents, Hungarian Defense Minister Ferenc Juhasz also gave assurances in Budapest that, in addition to the security provided by Hungarian army, police and intelligence forces, the base would also be protected by the U.S. military. Juhasz also gave assurances that the men being trained at Taszar were recruited by the U.S. Department of Defense from a group that was rigorously screened to weed out any pro-Saddam Hussein infiltrators.
Back in Taszar, it is close to minus 20 degrees again and a handful of people have gathered in the local bar. Two men are sitting at a table half watching the news on TV between swigs of beer. Talk of war tops the running orders on all the news channels.
"America is making this up. They are starting a war for the money, for the oil," one of them says. "They should be able to prove it, but they can’t. This is rubbish."
They won’t say much more, they’ve tired of the media attention the U.S. military project has brought to the town. "You should all just go home," a bar patron says.