About 2,000 Communists holding red flags and 5,000 Orthodox believers, who carried icons, on Tuesday swarmed the central independence square in Ukraine's capital Kiev and then marched to parliament, where speaker after speaker called for the troops' return.

   

"We have come to this square to say again and again - there is not one politician for whom war solves conflict, for whom the blood of our children pays our debts or increases our riches," Communist Party leader Petro Symonenko told protesters.

   

Retired general Mykhailo Pukhno said soldiers should never do politicians' bidding. "The government ... sent them there for their own interests. People should die for something their country needs, not for someone else's interests."

 

Motives questioned

   

President Leonid Kuchma's motives for sending about 1,600 peacekeepers to Iraq has come under fire, with many opposition politicians saying it was a crude attempt to repair ties with the United States which were strained by reports of illegal arms sales to Baghdad before the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

   

"People should die for something their country needs, not for someone else's interests"

Mykhailo Pukhno,
retired Ukrainian general

Calls for a withdrawal mounted earlier this year after two Ukrainian soldiers were killed in an ambush, bringing the total number of dead in Iraq to six since deployment in August.

   

Kuchma has vowed to keep his troops in Iraq "until the end", but the issue is set to dominate Ukraine's political agenda ahead of presidential elections in October.

   

Symonenko criticised the government for failing to combat poverty in the country of 48 million which borders the European Union in what seemed to be an election speech.

   

Many of the protesters pointed their attack at Kuchma, calling on him to "don his military uniform and get to Iraq".

   

"I have come to express my outrage that our children have been sent to foreign lands to spill their blood for something no one needs," Anna Dorohova said. "If there were jobs here and if they were paid ... our children would stay."