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Iraq: Poland's Hesitation Raising New Doubts About Cohesion Of Coalition

  • Eugen Tomiuc --> Poland appears to be expressing doubts about its commitment to keeping troops in Iraq. This comes after decisions by Spain, Honduras, and the Dominican Republic to withdraw their forces. Other states have shown varying degrees of commitment to their Iraq obligations. How strong is the U.S.-led "coalition of the willing"?

Prague, 22 April 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Poland has been one of the staunchest allies of the United States in the war in Iraq.

But Warsaw has now expressed doubts about its commitment to the Iraqi operation -- just days after Spain and two other countries announced their withdrawal from Iraq.

Outgoing Polish Prime Minister Leszek Miller yesterday told Poland's PAP news agency that Warsaw "cannot turn a blind eye" to Spain's decision to withdraw its 1,300 troops.

Miller said Poland will not make what he called "rash gestures" but left open the question of the future of its troops in Iraq.

Polish Defense Minister Jerzy Szmajdzinski heightened the uncertainty today, saying Poland is ready to keep its troops in Iraq past the 30 June transfer of power to Iraq -- but only if the new Iraqi authorities wish them to stay.

"We've already seen the possibility of a domino effect flowing from the decision of the new Spanish government." -- Jeffrey Gedmin of the Aspen Institute, a U.S. think tank
Poland has the fourth-largest contingent in Iraq, with 2,400 troops. It is also in command of some 9,500 soldiers from 23 countries, including Spain. That force is serving in the south-central sector of Iraq that has been the scene of intense fighting in the past few weeks.

Analyst Jeffrey Gedmin leads the Berlin branch of the Aspen Institute, a U.S. think tank. He told RFE/RL that Poland is playing a key role in the coalition, both militarily and politically.

"Poland is an important partner of the United States, Poland is an important member of the coalition in Iraq...for substantive reasons -- the military contribution that they are making -- but also for political and moral reasons," Gedmin said.

Poland's flickers of doubt are raising concerns about widening cracks in the coalition. Spain's announcement this weekend that it will withdraw its troops was followed closely by similar pledges by Honduras and the Dominican Republic.

Furthermore, Spain's new defense minister, Jose Bono, has indicated he might recall the 1,300 Spanish troops one month earlier than previously stated, saying they could be home by the end of May.

Gedmin said Spain and other countries are free to withdraw from the coalition. Still, he said, such obvious signs of friction within the coalition may serve the interests of terrorists operating in Iraq and elsewhere.

"Poland, Spain, Honduras -- each and every government and each and every nation has to make its own decision about what represents and serves its interest. Countries are there voluntarily, no one forces them to be there. That's point one. Point two is, however, that terrorists who are fighting us and who are murdering Iraqis each and every day are doing everything they can to split the coalition to divide the West, and to push us into retreat," Gedmin said.

The 35-country coalition is overwhelmingly dominated by the United States, which has some 135,000 troops in Iraq.

Britain, Washington's closest ally, comes a distant second with around 11,000 troops, deployed in southern Iraq. Prime Minister Tony Blair said today there are no plans to send more troops to Iraq. But Foreign Secretary Jack Straw added that British forces will be in Iraq for "years to come."

Altogether, the remaining coalition members account for just over 16,000 troops. That number will drop to some 14,000 once Spain, Honduras, and the Dominican Republic complete their withdrawals.

Some coalition countries have only noncombat forces, who deal mainly with reconstruction, such as the 550-strong Japanese force.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, whose country has the third-largest contingent with 2,700 troops, has already said it will stay in Iraq after the 30 June handover of power to the Iraqis.

Ukraine has some 1,600 soldiers in Iraq. President Leonid Kuchma today said Ukraine will keep its troops in the coalition "until the end," despite calls from some deputies for the withdrawal of the Ukrainian soldiers.

The parliament in Kyiv today was considering whether to debate a possible pullout.

The Netherlands has 1,260 troops in Iraq, under British command. It has yet to decide whether to extend their mandate beyond 30 June.

South Korea, which already has some 675 troops in Iraq, today said the deployment of some 3,000 more troops to Iraq, already postponed over security concerns, would be finalized next week.

This would make it the third-largest contributor of forces to Iraq, although the majority would be noncombat troops.

Australia, which during the major phase of the war last year had some 2,000 troops in Iraq, now has an 850-strong force, which it says it will not withdraw.

Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said today it would be irresponsible to withdraw Australian troops from Iraq after almost 70 people were killed by suicide bombers in the southern city of Al-Basrah yesterday.

Romania, Denmark, and Bulgaria, who collectively contribute some 1,700 troops (730, 500, and 470 respectively), have all reiterated their commitment to completing their mission.

Danish Army officials today said Copenhagen could expand the role of its forces in Iraq.

But Bulgarian Defense Minister Nikolai Svinarov today was quoted by Reuters as saying Bulgaria might consider pulling some troops out of Iraq at the end of June if the UN passes a new resolution and power is handed over to Iraqi authorities.

Georgia's Defense Ministry said today they will boost their troop commitment from 160 to 550 in July.

Analysts say that, even though the military participation of most of the members in the U.S.-led coalition is symbolic -- Moldova, for instance, has only 25 troops in Iraq -- it has huge value in terms of political cohesion.

As a result, said Jeffrey Gedmin, defections -- regardless of their military impact -- have the potential of undermining the coalition as a whole.

"We've already seen the possibility of a domino effect flowing from the decision of the new Spanish government. That was a crack in the coalition which seemed to give others second thoughts, pause for thought -- [it] introduced uncertainty into the equation that hadn't existed before. I mean, of course, when you have this coalition from Australia to Georgia to Honduras to Poland to Spain to Britain to the United States and so on, there is something to be said for the political, diplomatic and moral solidarity of the case and the mission. And when one or two or three countries either pull out or become wobbly, well, sure, at least the possibility is there that others start having their own doubts and skepticism -- and that's harmful," Gedmin said.

Many Islamic states have indicated they might send troops to Iraq when and if the United Nations is given a central role there.

The 57-member Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), the world's biggest grouping of Muslim states, today called for a UN peacekeeping force to be sent to Iraq.

In Cairo, the Arab League chief Amr Mussa said today any deployment of Arab troops in Iraq could only take place as part of a UN force and at the request of a "legitimate Iraqi government."