January 19, 2008 / 1:26 AM / 10 years ago

U.S. military chief thanks El Salvador for Iraq help

SAN JUAN OPICO, El Salvador (Reuters) - The top U.S. military officer praised El Salvador on Friday -- the only Latin American country still providing troops to the U.S.-led campaign in Iraq -- for its contribution to the war.

Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, held talks with military leaders in the capital, San Salvador, and met troops who will soon deploy to Iraq.

The country of some 7 million people, scene of a civil war in the 1980s, has sent about 3,000 troops since 2003, in rotations of several hundred at a time. Five Salvadoran soldiers have died in Iraq and more than 50 have been wounded.

Fellow Central American countries Nicaragua and Honduras sent troops to Iraq in 2003 but withdrew them shortly later after criticism at home.

“In my opinion, there is no such thing as a symbolic commitment on the part of any country and certainly on the part of any armed forces,” Mullen said.

Mullen met the next detachment of about 280 troops, scheduled to deploy next month, at their training base at San Juan Opico, west of the capital. They will be the 10th group to deploy to Iraq for a six-month tour.

“You represent a great armed force committed to a critical mission in a vital part of the world,” Mullen told the group.

The Salvadoran contingent of the U.S.-led force in Iraq is based in the town of Kut, southeast of Baghdad. Its troops distribute humanitarian supplies and coordinate small reconstruction projects.

The United States has 158,000 troops in Iraq, according to the latest Pentagon figures.

Editing by Peter Cooney

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