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Iraq: Is Poland Up To The Task Of Directing A Peacekeeping Zone?

Poland faces a massive task in organizing the peacekeeping effort in one of the four security zones in Iraq designated by the United States. The move is seen as a gesture of gratitude by Washington for Poland's strong support during the war. But analysts say Poland will struggle to organize the multinational force required.

Prague, 6 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Poland faces a difficult task as it prepares to take control of peacekeeping operations in one of four security zones created by U.S. forces in Iraq.

The Poles are tasked with deploying a multinational peacekeeping force of up to 7,500 troops by the beginning of September.

Polish official Marek Belka, deputy head of the U.S.-led Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance in Iraq, says the Polish-led force should begin deploying next month. Besides Poland, troops have been pledged by Ukraine, Romania, Bulgaria, Denmark, and Norway.

The Polish zone, in south-central Iraq between Baghdad and the port of Basra, is considered a sensitive area because it includes some of Iraq's Muslim holy cities. Two zones are administered by the United States and one by Britain.

Marc Houben, a military analyst at the Center for European Policy Studies in Brussels, says the task is daunting.

"There is a difference obviously between the eagerness which is expressed at the political level versus the ability to deliver at the working level. Think, for example, of very concrete problems like the [limited] ability to speak English in the Polish armed forces," Houben says.

Houben points out that there are broader issues of interoperability, such as whether the various units have the same communications equipment, the same procedures, even whether they have the same organizational culture.

"The countries in Western Europe have been collaborating over decades, and also have shared some important strategic experiences -- for example, in the 1990s in the Balkan operations. They have now come to a sort of collective set of shared strategic beliefs about how an operation should be run, and obviously Poland is only beginning to learn and to have these experiences, so it will be a mightily difficult undertaking for them," he says.

Houben adds that Poland's military has made "huge" progress since being invited to join NATO but is still, on the whole, far from reaching NATO standards.

In Warsaw, analyst Antoni Kaminski of the Institute of Political Studies acknowledges that the Iraq operation will be highly challenging and, therefore, "risky." But he says that "these people -- I'm talking about Polish officers -- have a lot of experience in peacekeeping and peace enforcement. There are quite a number of officers who have served in different peacekeeping operations, and I think they represent a pretty high intellectual quality."

Kaminski notes they have served in the Balkans, the Mideast, and Cambodia, though he acknowledges those operations did not involve the level of responsibility now facing Poland. And he lists another advantage.

"We have quite a good image among the Arabs. This is my impression. Thousands of Poles were employed in different investment [projects], particularly road building and other investments carried out in Iraq in the 1980s, and there were no scandals connected with them, you know," Kaminski says.

Analysts say Poland cannot be allowed to fail in this mission. They note that the NATO alliance agreed at a meeting in Madrid to provide Poland with backup on intelligence, communications, logistics, movement coordination, and force generation.

London-based analyst Charles Heyman of Jane's military publishing group says, "NATO won't allow [Poland to fail]. The U.S. occupation forces who, by and large, are running the show won't allow it to be a disaster, but it could be very, very difficult."

NATO Secretary-General George Robertson was careful to point out in recent comments that NATO is not directly intervening in Iraq.

"We are not talking about a NATO presence in Iraq. We are talking, purely and simply, about NATO help to Poland, which is intending to be in Iraq and to fulfill a role in the stabilization force," Robertson said.

But the question arises whether this limited background support by NATO will be sufficient. "You cannot have the Poles failing in this mission," Houben says, "and you have to support them to the best of your ability, and to regard this whole undertaking as a very important institutional learning experience. That means you have to give assistance in, say, organizing the command-and-control of the whole operation. That means that you not only have to second officials -- both military and civilian -- to the Polish headquarters but also to the subordinate units, and that you have to coach them through this whole exercise."

Analyst Kaminski notes that, in any case, Poles are noted for being great improvisers, and he expects them to come through their task in Iraq one way or another.