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Thursday, April 10

Slovaks, relating to Iraqis' jubilation, greet country's leader

By Karen Bouffard | The Detroit News

LINCOLN PARK, Mich. - Many of the 40,000 Slovaks who live in Wayne County remember what Slovakia was like when the Communists were in charge. So it was a poignant occasion Thursday when Rudolf Schuster, president of the Slovak Republic, came to Lincoln Park just one day after the fall of Baghdad.

More than 2,000 people greeted the former Communist Party member, now president of one of the world's new eastern European democracies, with cheers, whistles, food, dancing and song.

Schuster said he'd met with President Bush in Washington on Wednesday just as Baghdad residents were toppling the towering statue of Saddam Hussein in the city square - and the two watched together as jubilant Iraqis celebrated their release from tyranny.

"For these people in Iraq, they are hungry for democracy. ... Now Iraq will change and elect its own leadership," said Schuster, whose country was one of the first to commit troops and support to the U.S.-led coalition against Saddam's regime. He said the Slovak Republic now has 142 soldiers in Iraq, including a team of experts on biological, nuclear and chemical weapons.

"It was a special feeling, a glad moment," he said.

Sterling Heights resident Milan Straka said he moved to the United States before Slovakia split peacefully from Czechoslovakia in 1993 and became a democracy.

"Under the Communists, people who were public officials couldn't go to church," Straka said, noting that the country is predominantly Christian, with about 60 percent Roman Catholic. "I was in skilled trade school, and I had to go to church in a different town. If the teachers found out I was in school, they might have kicked me out.

"Communism is tyranny, just like Saddam, just a different kind."

Schuster said now that the country has been liberated, Iraqis who fled to the United States should return to help rebuild their country.

"They have to return home, because they can lead," he said. "Here, many of them have grown up as children with democracy. They can help their people learn the democratic way of life."