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Spain dispatching troops to Iraq

From CNN Madrid Bureau Chief Al Goodman

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MADRID, Spain (CNN) -- Spain will send 1,300 troops to Iraq for peacekeeping duties as part of an international military force that will operate south of Baghdad, Defense Minister Federico Trillo said.

Spain's cabinet formally approved the measure Friday.

Speaking at a nationally-televised news conference after the cabinet meeting, Trillo said the Spanish deployment would begin Saturday and that the troops would be fully deployed and operational by early September.

They will be part of a 12-nation military force operating in a south-central sector of Iraq initially under Polish command, Trillo said.

Other sectors of Iraq are under direct U.S. command, such as Baghdad, or direct British command, such as the southern city of Basra.

The conservative government of Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar has been one of President George W. Bush's staunchest allies before, during and after the war in Iraq.

This stance came despite public opinion polls that at one point showed that 90 percent of Spaniards opposed the war in Iraq.

During the war, Spain dispatched 900 troops in southern Iraq on what the government said was a humanitarian mission, including medical aid to Iraqi civilians and Iraqi prisoners of war.

But the new deployment will involve troops from combat-ready units like the Spanish legionnaires, Trillo said.

Trillo insisted that the sector where the Spanish troops will be based is very "tranquil," an area he described as being an agricultural district inhabited by Shiite Muslims.

His words may have been intended to calm fears among the Spanish public, which has seen widespread coverage in Spanish media of the U.S. troops who have been killed recently in ambushes or sniper attacks.

Trillo added, "No international missions has been without risk."

He said the troops would also have armored military vehicles and other equipment to improve their own security. The deployment will also include units trained in responding to chemical or biological weapons and also a contingent of Spanish National Police.

Trillo said the cabinet approved the Spanish deployment through next December 30, but he indicated at the news conference that the troops could remain longer.

He said Spain might have a co-leadership role for this sector, along with Poland, after the initial six-month deployment.

Trillo said the Spanish deployment is being done in accord with United Nations Security Council resolution 1483, which calls upon UN member states to assist in the reconstruction of Iraq and to help provide security.

The sector under Polish command is a south-central section of Iraq between Baghdad and Basra. Besides Spain, it will include peacekeeping troops from Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador and the Dominican Republic, Trillo said.

The new deployment has long been discussed in Spain and the cabinet approval was seen as a foregone conclusion.

Prime Minister Aznar was not even present at the cabinet meeting in Madrid. Instead, he is in Los Angeles, on a tour of U.S. states with large Hispanic populations and roots dating back to Spanish colonial rule.

The California legislature, meeting in joint session in Sacramento on Thursday, gave the visiting Aznar a large round of applause for Spain's support of the U.S.-led war in Iraq, Spanish media reported on Friday. Aznar made a speech to the legislature.

Later on Friday, Aznar is due to travel to New Mexico and this weekend he will also visit Texas before returning to Spain.

The latest deployment of Spanish combat-ready troops also came while many of Spain's humanitarian troops were sailing home from southern Iraq to Spain. They are expected to reach Spain in the coming days.

The deployment starting on Saturday will involve ships carrying supplies and military equipment.

Most of the troops will travel in Spanish troop transport planes or in similar aircraft provided by the United States.

Last May 26, 62 Spanish peacekeepers, returning mainly from duty in Afghanistan, died when Russian-made, Ukranian-operated troop transport plane crashed in Turkey.

In addition to national mourning for the loss of the troops, the crash set off a huge controversy about the use of transport planes from the former Soviet bloc countries.

But with the deployment to Iraq, only Spanish or U.S. planes are scheduled for use, Trillo said.

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