Poland to withdraw troops from 'high-risk area' near capital

By Daniel Howden in Warsaw

21 August 2003

The Independent

Poland scaled back its military commitment in Iraq yesterday in response to Tuesday's devastating attack on the UN headquarters in Baghdad.

Under a hastily agreed new formula for the occupation, Polish troops will withdraw from a "high-risk area" near Baghdad, leaving the territory to come under the command of US forces, Polish Foreign Ministry officials revealed.

"We have ceded 1,000 square kilometres that would have come under the control of the Polish command to the US administration," Tadeusz Iwinski, a senior foreign policy adviser to the Polish Prime Minister, Leszek Miller, told The Independent.

Poland is due to take formal charge of the central third of occupied Iraq, sandwiched between the American and the British zones in the north and south, on 1 September.

The new Polish-led division will operate in a territory one- quarter the size of Poland (80,000sq km), which includes four predominantly Shia Muslim provinces south of Baghdad now occupied by US Marines. Warsaw has sent more than 1,800 troops to Iraq since the beginning of this month. They will be joined by troops from Spain, Ukraine, Lithuania and a number of Central American countries to form a multinational force of 9,000 soldiers.

According to Professor Iwinski, the central zone was previously considered a "low- risk area" but Tuesday's bombing had forced a review of security concerns.

"I would not say that we have crossed the Rubicon, but this was certainly a sharp warning," he said of the attack that killed the UN special envoy, Sergio Vieira De Mello, and at least 19 others.

News of the blast caused anxiety in Warsaw, where senior officials were meeting Junichiro Koizumi, the Japanese Prime Minister, to discuss technical and financial assistance for Poland's new international mission.

The Polish force of 2,500 troops is expected to stay in the country for at least two years.

Warsaw has been one of Washington's staunchest allies during the Iraq conflict, sending 200 troops from its special forces to serve in the invasion. Donald Rumsfeld, the American Defence Secretary, drew a controversial distinction between "old Europe" - primarily France and Germany - and "new Europe", a number of Eastern European countries that have established close links with Washington since the collapse of the Soviet bloc.

Opinion polls at the outbreak of hostilities showed that two thirds of Poles opposed the war, but after the fall of Baghdad that opposition declined.

Despite near daily demonstrations in the city of Najaf, inside what will be the Polish zone, officials and local media in Warsaw have stressed their force's good relations with the local community.

Serious concerns persist over the country's largest foreign intervention even within the Polish military.

A Polish general and strategy expert, Stanislaw Kosiey, warned in the conservative daily Rzeczpospolita of the increasing number of attacks being launched by Iraqis against occupying troops. "The attacks could last many years, and they are more and more better organised," he said, and they could give rise to a "new Vietnam".