Thursday, July 31, 2003

From combined dispatches

SZCZECIN, Poland — More than 2,000 Polish soldiers left for Iraq yesterday, the first in a series of deployments from a Europe that has proved willing to send troops to Iraq despite anti-U.S. pressure from France and Germany.

The soldiers will be part of a 9,200-strong Polish-led multinational division ensuring security in one of postwar Iraq’s four zones.

“Democracy, liberty and respect for human rights would not have existed in Poland and in Central Europe if Western democracies had treated us with indifference 14 years ago. We have a duty to pay our political and moral debt,” President Aleksander Kwasniewski told his troops as they prepared to depart.

Of the 30 countries that have pledged to take part in peacekeeping operations in the oil-rich state, two-thirds are European. Several former Soviet states are also participating in coalition forces.

By far the biggest European contributor is Britain, the United States’ only major military ally in the campaign to topple Saddam Hussein.

Poland is the largest continental European contributor to the multinational division. It has agreed to post 2,300 troops and take control of one of postwar Iraq’s coalition-defined occupation sectors.

The Polish-led division will include 1,640 Ukrainian and 1,300 Spanish soldiers.

Bulgaria is sending about 500 troops; Hungary has pledged several hundred; Romania and Latvia each are deploying about 150, while Slovakia and Lithuania are dispatching 85 apiece.

The reasons why European countries have offered military support to coalition forces in Iraq vary.

Some, such as Britain, Poland and Spain, have done so because they genuinely believed in the justness of the war on Saddam’s regime. Others have done so as a way of showing their loyalty to Washington.

Europe’s military input not only internationalizes the postwar effort to rebuild Iraq but takes some of the pressure off Washington to bring stability to Iraq single-handedly.

Poland will administer a zone of nearly 31,000 square miles, which is about a quarter the size of Poland itself.

A vanguard is already in Iraq preparing the base of the stabilization force, which will be responsible for security in the south-central section, between Baghdad and Basra.

Mr. Kwasniewski said he planned to visit Iraq himself once the force had settled in. “I think that such a visit makes sense at a time we will already have gathered experience.”

After the Polish president spoke, family members including many children crowded around the soldiers under a hot sun to bid them farewell.

“We will pray and wait for their happy return. That’s the way it is. You sometimes have to take risks,” the mother of Rafal Kotwicki told Agence France-Presse as the Iraq-bound soldier kissed his wife and their 2-year-old daughter Sandra.

Polish forces, including 370 officers, are to arrive in Iraq beginning Tuesday.

Stanislaw Boczkowski, in his 60s, who came to say goodbye to his son, said he spent six years in the 1980s in Iraq as a construction worker.

“It was a horrible dictatorship. Everyone was very poor, with the exception of a small elite of rich people. It is a very good thing that soldiers go there,” he said, looking proudly at his son.

The United States is footing most of the bill for the Polish-led division.

The soldiers, their uniforms marked with the Polish flag and the word Poland in Polish and Arabic, have also learned some basic Arabic and taken lessons in Iraqi customs and culture.

The coalition now has 13,400 non-U.S. troops deployed in Iraq, the bulk of them British, ground-forces commander Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez said last week.

“There are 18 countries here right now,” Gen. Sanchez told reporters, adding that Britain was providing 8,300 troops and the Netherlands 800.

The United States said Monday that 30 nations have so far agreed to join it in an international stabilization force for Iraq even without a specific United Nations mandate demanded by some.

The State Department would not say exactly which countries would contribute to the mission, but maintained that each would provide some military, technical or logistical component to the force.

Several nations including France, Germany, Russia and India have said they will not participate in the stabilization mission unless it is specifically authorized by the U.N. Security Council in a new resolution.

With the exception of the British presence in the south, Washington’s failure to secure a large contingent of foreign troops has created the impression that U.S. forces, numbering some 150,000, are essentially alone in Iraq.

U.S. officials have indicated that Washington is open to the idea of a new U.N. mandate to bring in more peacekeepers.

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