Hungarians play unwitting hosts to war games

The deserted, snowy plains of Hungary make an unlikely testing ground for a war in the sandy deserts of the Middle-East.

Yet, in a matter of days, a remote military base will receive 3,000 Iraqi exiles, whisked from Europe and North America to prepare for a US-led push to oust Saddam Hussein’s regime.

Before Christmas, Hungary’s Government approved a US request to host the political dissidents at a cold-war era airbase 120 miles south of Budapest.

It’s only 9am and already there is a deafening roar coming from the helicopters circling overhead. Dozens of 4WD jeeps fitted with US-army number plates crunch along the narrow stretch of crude country track.

Yards from the village school, several Hungarian soldiers pace along the public road, with Soviet-era submachine guns slung over their shoulders.

Hungary’s Ministry of Defence recently revealed the firing range and assault course at the Taszar base may not lie quiet for long.

However, US defence officials deny they are moulding a militia and say their pupils will be trained in civilian roles: Acting as scouts, guides and translators to assist in any post-war reconstruction of Iraq.

Hungarian Defence spokesman Petar Matyuc says: “Their month-long training in how to use a self-defence gun from 30m does not correspond to military training.”

Guarding prisoners or acting as air-strike spotters, which require weapons to be carried, are non-combat roles the volunteers could be assigned to. The volunteers have been vetted by the London-based Iraqi National Congress to weed out mercenary elements.

Experts regard the exiles’ insider knowledge crucial to voiding a chaotic replay of Afghan-style anarchy and in-fighting in the aftermath of battle with Baghdad.

However, an opinion poll suggests most Hungarians are having second thoughts on co-operating with the US.

The poll shows 75 per cent of citizens believe the Iraqis’ presence could increase the risk of a terrorist strike. A less sophisticated but similar verdict was evident in the village of Taszar – which orders the controversial base of the same name.

In the village’s only bar, waitress Agnes, 27, reveals anxieties are running high. “People are preparing for war here. These men are Arab killers. Well, we don’t want any war here in Hungary.”

Taszar lies just four miles from Kaposvar, a town of 70,000 people.

Suszanna Haz, 31, a council clerk, says she feels she can do nothing to prevent the training of Iraqis on her doorstep.

“My family are worried about terrorism. We are so vulnerable to that happening.”

Hungary claims it has prepared emergency plans to cope with a terrorist attack but several local mayors near Taszar have complained of being kept in the dark.

Kaposvar politician Tamas Balassa has been appointed to boost support for a project which has attracted widespread suspicion.

“I’m aware of peoples’ worries [over terrorism]. We think this will be good for the economy, with more Americans spending in the town than ever,” he says.

Balassa admits he had originally been advised to spread disinformation about the backgrounds of the mystery men before their arrival.

“We were told to say they were not Iraqis, only American citizens of Middle-East origin.”

The US effectively took control of the communist-built site in 1995 to base and supply its peacekeeping troops for nearby Bosnia.

Taszar boasts at least two air-strips able to take large transport planes and where the Iraqi volunteers are expected to touch down. Fifty US trainers arrived earlier this month – and checked into the town’s three-star Hotel Kapos. They have made little secret of their presence.

The hotel receptionist recalls the scene. “We had many Americans staying here. They said they were special soldiers.”

Under the deal agreed by Hungary, the Iraqis are hired as US employees – their training paid from US$92m provided by the 1998 Iraqi Liberation Act and authorised by president Bush.

During their three-month stay at the sprawling military compound the Iraqis are forbidden to leave the base. The outside world will be off limits until these mystery men are ready for their mission.

Until then, they can expect a frosty welcome from their nervous neighbours.