The United States signed an agreement on Friday to establish three military bases in Bulgaria as it shifts troops from old Cold War positions to smaller installations closer to the Middle East and Africa.
Under the deal, the United States will deploy 2,500 soldiers on short rotations to Bulgaria as it draws down tens of thousands of troops from Cold War bases in Europe and Asia.
“The agreement indeed will enhance our cooperation, allowing the shared use of Bulgarian training facilities and strengthening our ability to operate militarily,” said U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice after a signing ceremony on the sidelines of a meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Sofia.
Bulgaria, an ex-communist country of 7.7 million, has been eager to repay Washington for supporting its 2004 NATO membership. It has backed the United States in Iraq despite widespread public opposition to the war.
The 10-year agreement includes the Bezmer airfield and Novo Selo shooting range, both near Bulgaria’s border with Turkey, and the Graf Ignatievo airfield in central Bulgaria.
U.S. forces will also have access to a storage facility near Bulgaria’s port of Bourgas. The total number of soldiers may double for short periods during rotations every six months.
The United States said the first troops would most likely arrive next year. Under the arrangement, Washington may launch attacks against third countries from the bases after consulting Bulgarian authorities. Both sides have said the facilities will be shared and used mainly for training.
The agreement must still be ratified by Bulgaria’s parliament, in which the three-party Socialist-led coalition holds a commanding majority.
A recent opinion survey showed 60 percent of Bulgarians were against the bases which are expected to bring tens of millions of dollars in badly-needed foreign investment and create jobs.
Bulgaria’s far-right opposition Attack party has been one of the loudest opponents. It mustered around 5,000 people in protests in Sofia on Thursday.
Rights groups have expressed concern over the bases following allegations the United States may have used installations in Romania, Poland and other European states as secret CIA jails.
The plan closely resembles a deal signed in December between Washington and Bulgaria’s northern Black Sea neighbor Romania.