ASTANA (Reuters) - Kazakhstan pulled its soldiers out of Iraq on Tuesday following a five-year stint designed to highlight the ex-Soviet nation’s support for the Unites States.
Although tiny, Kazakhstan’s detachment of 29 sappers and engineers to Iraq in 2003 symbolized its efforts to forge closer ties with the West to balance off Russia’s traditionally strong influence in the former Soviet Central Asia region.
A Kazakh Defense Ministry spokesman said the servicemen would return to their homeland on Tuesday in line with a prior agreement with the Iraqi government.
“The Kazakh detachment has finished five-year peacekeeping operations, fulfilled its objectives and successfully ended its mission in Iraq,” he said.
“The soldiers are coming back home at the Iraqi government’s request following an improvement in the (security) situation.”
Kazakhstan has been Washington’s key ally in Central Asia, particularly since the expulsion of U.S. troops from an airbase in neighboring Uzbekistan in 2005.
In a show of support, Kazakhstan allowed overflights of its territory during the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan and has sought to forge closer ties with NATO by holding joint military games.
As part of its balancing act, Kazakhstan has also maintained good relations with Russia, its biggest trading partner, and continued to buy most of military hardware from its former Soviet overlord.
Reporting by Raushan Nurshayeva; Writing by Maria Golovnina