Poles Prepare for Iraq Role

July 18, 2003

Polish troops in Iraq have been preparing for their new role, leading an international force in central southern Iraq.

US forces have been briefing the Poles, who are to command one of the post-war administrative zones set up to run Iraq. The transfer of authority in September will see the Polish contingent leading more than 9,000 troops from at least 15 countries, including Spain, Denmark and the Philippines.

An advance party of about 200 Polish troops is already in Babylon, south of Baghdad, learning how to deal with everything from power cuts to ambushes, and keeping a close eye on the security situation.

US-led troops have frequently come under attacks from Iraqi militants, particularly in an area north of Baghdad which is seen as a stronghold for Sunni Muslim supporters of ousted President Saddam Hussein.

'Curse of Babylon'

The commander of the Polish forces, Andrezj Tyszkiewicz, said he did not expect a hostile reception from the Iraqis. The level of hostility is lower here than in Baghdad and things will be changing in a better way," he said.

But Polish newspapers fear the troops will be at risk. Under the headline, "The curse of Babylon: our soldiers should have eyes at the back of their heads", the Wprost weekly warns that humanitarian aid should quickly follow, in order to "win Iraqis over".

The US forces in Camp Babylon have welcomed the arrival of the Polish troops, who will eventually number 2,300. "We're anxious to assist them so we can go home," said Colonel Michael Whitehead. "I've got a wife and three children in Tallahassee, Florida, I can't wait to see." The sector of Iraq under Polish command will be sandwiched between the US and British sectors.

It is the first time Poland has led such a large multinational peacekeeping force. Earlier this month the Polish Foreign Minister Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz admitted that Poland's "ultimate objective" in Iraq was to gain access to Iraqi oil. The Polityka weekly newspaper has called his comments "excessive frankness".

The paper said: "[It] puts everybody in an awkward position, particularly our soldiers, whose presence in Iraq implies a game for oil, which is being played according to an old colonial logic: he who occupies - exploits".

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