Poland's new president overturns decision to pull troops out of Iraq

Poland's new conservative president Lech Kaczynski has overturned a decision by the previous government to pull all Polish troops out of Iraq. They are now to stay for another year. The decison has its critics but is likely to win favour with the US.

The government has decided to keep troops in Iraq until the end of the year but the size of the contingent will be cut from the present total of 1,500 soldiers to 900 in March. Defence minister Sikorski told me that the move is a natural continuation of Poland's support for the United States and its efforts to restore democracy to Iraq.

"We're a serious country that finishes what it begins. We want to end our mission with success and as our two provinces are pretty quiet - we're proud that we've established peace and security for the Iraqis in our area of responsibility - the Iraqi authorities have asked us as a sort of insurance policy while the 8th Iraqi division has already taken command for our forces to be there to advise them and help if the need arose. So we have acceded to their request. We've been also asked by our American allies and it's also very important to us."

Poland, along with the United Kingdom and Australia, were the only countries to provide combat troops for the invasion of Iraq. It has since commanded a multinational division in south-central Iraq, currently involving troops from 12 countries. The character of the Polish mission has changed significantly since 2003 and now focuses on the training of Iraqi military personnel. According to Artur Golawski of Polska Zbrojna, the decision to keep troops in Iraq serves Polish interests well.

"The decision to cut and withdraw some troops and equipment is a good decision. It's a stage of preparations for a complete withdrawal because in a few months from now Polish troops will have nothing to do in Iraq. Staying in Iraq for an additional year we preserve our military relationship with the United States and this should be treated as a very positive signal for Poland."

While there is no denying that the Polish army has gained a much needed international experience, the government's decision has a growing number of critics in Parliament and in various civic movements. Jan Cienski, the Warsaw correspondent of the Financial Times, is convinced that despite mounting criticism, the government's decision deserves the applause.

"It's not popular with the population at large but there are enormous benefits when it comes to relations with the United States. The Americans hugely value the Polish contribution. When you talk to American politicians and people in American think tanks, the geo-political weight of Poland has increased dramatically because of the military presence in Iraq. Simply the seriousness with which Poland is treated both by the United States and by other European countries is already a very positive result of the action in Iraq."

The financial costs of the Polish presence in Iraq amount to 600 million dollars, which is about 10 percent of Poland's annual defence budget. The United States has spent about 300 million dollars assisting the Polish mission. What Poland would like to gain in return for extending its presence in Iraq, many analysts stress, is more military aid from Washington.