A multinational force of some 9,500 troops is now operating in south central Iraq under Polish command. But the United States has for now delayed the handover to the Polish-led division of security patrols in the turbulent city of Al-Najaf.
Prague, 4 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Officials in the United States are welcoming Poland's takeover of the command of a multinational division in south central Iraq yesterday as a significant step in Washington's search to share the security burden in post-Hussein Iraq.
Thousands of troops in the so-called Multinational Division Central South gathered for a handover ceremony conducted yesterday at Babylon in the ruins of an amphitheater that had been built by Alexander the Great.
U.S. Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, the overall commander of coalition ground forces in Iraq, praised the work of the U.S. troops who have been providing security in the area since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March.
"The environment you [in the U.S. military] have worked so hard to establish, you will now hand off to Multinational Division Central South," Sanchez said. "You have definitely set the conditions for them to succeed in whatever endeavors and challenges may lie ahead for them."
Sanchez also welcomed the 9,500 soldiers of the new multinational division -- including their immediate commander, Polish Major General Andrzej Tyszkiewicz.
"The Multinational Division Central South -- led by Polish Major General Tyszkiewicz -- is ready to assume its role," he said. "I have absolute faith and confidence in the 21 nations that will assume their responsibilities today."
Eventually, the Polish-led force is to be in charge of a region between Baghdad and Al-Basrah with troops from Bulgaria, Spain, Ukraine, and other countries. Spanish troops were to play a key role in the Shi'a holy city of Al-Najaf, with Polish forces operating from their headquarters in Karbala.
But the United States has delayed its plans to transfer command within Al-Najaf following a bombing at the Imam Ali Mosque last week that killed at least 83 people -- including the prominent Shi'a cleric Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim, the head of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI).
The bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad last month also has raised concerns in countries that already had been hesitating to deploy forces under the leadership of the United States.
A handover in Al-Najaf -- initially scheduled to take place yesterday -- has been pushed back to 21 September.
A spokesman for the Polish-led multinational division, Andrzej Wiatrowski, told RFE/RL that security concerns have made it impossible to conduct the handover simultaneously across southern and central Iraq: "We must deal with everything in a very careful way. We cannot take responsibility in all areas at the same time. That is why some provinces must be handed over earlier and some of them later."
Speaking to journalists in Baghdad today, Sanchez admitted that he needs additional international forces to deal with many potential threats to Iraq's security -- including Al-Qaeda terrorists, Iranian fighters and clashes between ethnic and religious militia.
Sanchez said the coalition force he leads does not have sufficient troops to handle major internal conflicts that may erupt in Iraq. But he said he expects the problem to be resolved with time. He also insisted that additional U.S. troops are not needed in Iraq.
For his part, General Tyszkiewicz is linking Poland's leadership role in five Iraqi provinces to the global war on terrorism.
"As a result of the events of September 11 we have become soldiers in the war on terrorism," he said. "Our countries decided to join in the effort to ensure basic human values and solidarity in the struggle for the right to live without fear and hunger."
In Washington, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell noted that 30 countries have now sent troops to Iraq to join the U.S.-led coalition.
But analysts are keen to point out that most of those countries have sent no more than a few hundred soldiers. Some have even estimated that as many as 100,000 additional troops may be needed in Iraq.
The United States still has some 150,000 troops in Iraq. Britain has about 11,000 troops in the country. British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw reportedly has proposed the deployment of another 5,000.
But Washington and London are finding it difficult to get large troop contributions from countries like Russia, India, and Turkey without a new UN Security Council resolution or some other international mandate authorizing their presence as a "peacekeeping force."
The existing UN resolution 1483, which was passed in May, recognizes the United States and Britain as "occupying powers" in Iraq and restricts the United Nations to a limited role in reconstruction and humanitarian assistance.
At a news conference in Washington yesterday, Powell signaled that the administration of President George W. Bush may be ready to grant the UN greater powers in Iraq, a move that would represent a significant shift in American policy.
Powell said the U.S. is circulating a resolution at the UN Security Council that would put the coalition forces in Iraq and any others who join them under a UN mandate with command remaining in American hands.
Bulgaria is among the countries that have contributed several hundred troops to the Polish-led division. Wiatrowski, the Polish spokesman for the multinational division, told RFE/RL about the role the Bulgarians will play.
"Bulgarian forces will be responsible for everything that is connected with the creation of good conditions -- to stabilize this area, to provide humanitarian aid and, of course, to mitigate human suffering," he said. "[The] Bulgarian battalion group is subordinated directly to the First Brigade Combat Team -- a brigade [from the U.S. Army's Third Infantry Division] which is responsible for Karbala and Babel provinces. So our Bulgarian friends will be in a big system connected with our Multinational Division Central South tasks."
Spain currently has 1,300 troops serving in Iraq's central regions of Al-Najaf and Al-Qasidiyah alongside a 1,200-strong Central American force from Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, Honduras, and El Salvador.
One issue those soldiers could face is the re-emergence of an Iranian-backed militant Shi'a group called the Badr Brigade -- the armed wing of SCIRI, which U.S. forces have ordered to disarm.
Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, the brother of slain SCIRI head Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim, says Shi'a will not take up arms against coalition troops.
But he suggested yesterday that the Badr Brigade has been rearmed -- in defiance of U.S. orders -- in order to defend Iraq's Shi'a community.
Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim is a member of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council and is his brother's successor as the leader of SCIRI.
When asked to confirm whether or not the Badr Brigade is back in service, Al-Hakim said the militia group has become "more and more organized." He also said the Badr Brigade will defend Iraqi interests if U.S. troops are unable to do so.