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Romania defence minister Atanasiu resigns

Written by: Staff
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BUCHAREST, Oct 25 (Reuters) Romania's Defence Minister Teodor Atanasiu, a vocal critic of the country's involvement in Iraq, resigned today, saying disagreements between him and the president were damaging the army.

His departure is likely to strengthen president Traian Basescu's position that Romania, a staunch ally of Washington in Iraq, should keep its troops there as long as needed instead of withdrawing them earlier as Atanasiu has in the past suggested.

Basescu suspended Atanasiu last month after prosecutors launched an investigation, dropped in October, into allegations that the defence minister had used military intelligence to spy on the president's aides.

''I decided today to submit my resignation to the prime minister. The Romanian president still refuses to withdraw the suspension decree despite evidence that I am not guilty,'' Atanasiu told a news briefing.

In June, Atanasiu announced plans to pull out Romanian troops from Iraq, without consulting the supreme defence council, headed by Basescu, saying it would save the government money. Romania has 600 troops in Iraq and a contingent in Afghanistan.

FRAGILE COALITION The move sparked one of the most heated arguments within the fragile ruling coalition, which has been plagued by rifts between the two main parties, the Liberals and the Democrats, over policy issues and government posts since taking power from the ex-communists in 2004.

Basescu, linked to the Democrats, had criticised Atanasiu, a senior member of Prime Minister Calin Tariceanu's Liberals, for not consulting him and no troop withdrawal plans materialised.

Many analysts say disagreements within the coalition are weakening the government's ability to continue deep reforms, needed to help Romania compete within the European Union which it is due to join next year.

But Atanasiu's departure became part of a rare political deal between the two main coalition groupings, in which Basescu's Democrats replaced the defence ministry post with their senior party official, Sorin Frunzaverde.

In return, the Liberals today picked Romania's nominee for EU executive's commissioner, naming head of the senate's budget committee Varujan Vosganian.

''It's a genuine struggle for power. Atanasiu was a pain in the neck for the president and now he is gone,'' Sorin Ionita of the Romanian Academic think-tank said.

REUTERS PB HT2140

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