The decision by Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende's centre-right government to renew the mandate for its troops to stay in Iraq is expected to be put to the lower house of parliament within two weeks. It is expected to gain approval. 

 

"The mission is not open ended. The eight-month period is related to the organisation of elections and points in the UN resolution," Balkenende told a news conference on Friday.

 

The United States has asked other nations to keep their troops in Iraq after the US-led coalition hands over power to an interim Iraqi government on June 30 amid continued violence.

 

A US-led occupation force has around 160,000 troops in Iraq.

 

The move to keep Dutch troops in Iraq follows a decision by

fellow EU member state Spain to withdraw its troops, sealing its conversion from a pillar of the US-led coalition into one of

Washington's harshest Western critics over Iraq. 

 

"The government has decided today to extend the Dutch

military contribution to the multinational forces in Iraq for a

period of eight months (from mid-July 2004 until mid-March

2005)," the Foreign Ministry said.

 

UN approval

 

The Dutch government's decision comes a matter of days after the UN gave resounding approval to a resolution on the future of Iraq. The United States and Britain ousted Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein 14 months ago after invading Iraq.

 

The UN Security Council voted unanimously on Tuesday to adopt a US-British resolution that formally ends the occupation of Iraq on 30 June, endorsed a "sovereign interim government" in Iraq and authorised a US-led multinational force to keep the peace.

 

The decision by the Dutch coalition could prove controversial. A recent opinion poll showed that the Dutch public is divided over keeping its forces in Iraq.

 

A recent opinion poll showed that the Dutch public is divided over keeping its forces in Iraq


"It's an important decision and I hope that it will benefit from the support of parliament and Dutch society," Balkenende said at a news conference.

 

Dutch troops have been based at Samawa in southern Iraq

since July 2003 with a mandate to help with reconstruction and to provide security and stability in a region where Japan has sent 550 non-combat troops to help rebuild the country.

   

Risky operation

 

The death of the first Dutch soldier in a grenade attack in

Iraq in May provoked shock in the Netherlands. He was the first Dutch soldier to be killed in conflict since 1995 when a

peacekeeper died in the Srebrenica enclave in the Bosnian war.

   

"The government is fully aware of the risks this operation poses for Dutch soldiers. Nevertheless, the government considers them to be justified in view of the importance of the operation," the government said after its weekly Cabinet meeting in The Hague. 

The Japanese contingent was
accommodated in the Dutch base

 

This week's UN resolution paves the way for elections by giving a timetable of no later than January 2005 for a poll on a transitional government.

 

After a constitution is written, a permanent government is to take office by 31 January 2006.

 

The Dutch government said it would stay to ensure a smooth

transition of sovereignty and later elections to establish a safe, stable and democratic Iraq.