BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) – Hungary’s government will ask lawmakers to keep its 300 troops in Iraq for an extra three months before pulling them out by March 31, the country’s new prime minister said Wednesday.

The decision to set a firm limit undercut President Bush’s effort to hold the multinational force together since Spain pulled out its 1,300 soldiers earlier this year. The interim Iraqi government asked Hungary a few weeks ago to keep its troops there for about another year.

Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany said he would ask parliament to extend the troops’ current mandate, which expires Dec. 31, until March 31. Hungary’s largest opposition party, which wants the soldiers home by year’s end, signaled it likely would block the move.

“We are obliged to stay there until the (Iraqi) elections. To stay longer is an impossibility,” Gyurcsany said.

Iraq’s elections are to be held by Jan. 31.

Hungary’s ambassador to the United States, Andras Simonyi, said the government’s decision to seek an extension until after the Iraqi elections was “serious and responsible.”

Hungary has a transportation contingent of 300 troops stationed in Hillah, south of Baghdad. One Hungarian soldier has died in Iraq, killed when a roadside bomb exploded by the water-carrying convoy he was guarding.

Hungary, which joined the European Union in May, sent the troops as part of the U.S.-led coalition. But the government has been under mounting pressure from citizens and opposition parties who object to the deployment.

Recent polls showed that about 60 percent of Hungarians wanted the government to withdraw the country’s troops from Iraq immediately.

There were no immediate signs Wednesday that other coalition governments were considering pulling out their troops, although most – including Japan, Britain and Denmark – are facing domestic pressure to do so.

In a letter sent three weeks ago, Iraq thanked Hungary for its contributions so far and asked it to extend the mission “to help Iraq’s stabilization process,” Hungarian government spokeswoman Boglar Laszlo said.

The government will ask lawmakers Monday to extend the troops’ mandate by three months, Defense Ministry spokesman Peter Matyuc said. However, that would require a two-thirds majority, and the Fidesz-Hungarian Civic Union, the main center-right opposition party, said it only would be willing to consider an extension if the multinational force received a U.N. mandate to stay.

“Already six months ago, Fidesz wanted the Hungarian troops to return from Iraq at the end of the year,” said Janos Ader, leader of the party’s parliamentary group.

Concerns about Hungary’s security increased after the country was mentioned in a message attributed to al-Qaida as a terrorist target because of its alliance with the United States.

“The threat to Hungary is no longer at its borders but often far away,” Gyurcsany said. “One of the most important conditions for creating order in Iraq lies ahead of us: the elections at the end of January. After that, the conditions for democratic order, peace and security can be created.”

After the troops return by March 31, “the existence of a stable democratic and safe Iraq has to be created by different means, above all political means. If Iraq is not safe, Hungary is not safe,” he said.

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