The Polish defense minister is in Washington this weekend discussing when troops will be withdrawn from Iraq.
As the United States’ ‘coalition of the willing' in Iraq gets less willing by the day, and the queue to get troops out becomes ever longer, Radek Sikorski has gone to negotiate where Poland will be in the line.
The previous SLD government had said that the 1,500 troops would be handing over the Polish controlled south-central sector of Iraq in January. But Poland’s president-elect, Lech Kaczynski, indicated that troops may stay until next summer, and some will remain behind after the rest have left.
Sikorski has said that the decision to stay or when to go is as much dependant on economic factors as military. He said last Thursday that the war had put enormous strain on Poland’s resources:
"We've invested a lot of energy - both blood and treasure and government attention, and political capital - in the mission and we certainly want to end it with success. By success, I mean handing over our sector of responsibility to a democratically elected Iraqi government ... and I think they are actually pretty close to success."
Poland’s mission in Iraq, which is centered around the ancient city of Babylon, has cost $600 million - ten percent of the defense budget.
"Whereas our army has increased its readiness and we are proud to have participated in an operation to help to stabilize Iraq, to bring democracy in Iraq, we could have modernized our forces faster with those funds," Sikorski told The Associated Press.
17 Poles have died in the conflict.
Apart from showing the US that Poland is an enthusiastic and responsible member of NATO, the economic aspect was always a major factor in deciding to join the occupation.
Iraq had lots of unpaid debts with Poland from back in the nineteen seventies and eighties. The Polish government also thought that it would get its hands on some tasty reconstruction contracts. But these have been slow in coming and have not lived up to expectations.
Poland sold Iraq $400 million dollars worth of arms in two years, though. The deals included helicopters, guns, special military vehicles and field service equipment, accounting for about 30 percent of all the arms Iraq purchased in that period.
And the new PiS government is involved in an oil deal between Warsaw and Baghdad. Prime Minister Marcinkiewicz denies, however, that this is ‘blood for oil': “We do not connect these things," he told Polskie Radio last week. He said that Poland had to find a way of diversifying its supplies of oil – at the moment the bulk of which come from a not very friendly Russia.
Time to go
Many in the United States like to think of Poland as their most staunch ally in the war. And it’s true that Polish governments have been, and will be, falling over themselves to sound positive and lend a helping hand.
But the war has never been popular with ordinary Poles. Only around one in three have ever supported it. The liberal middle class share the same dislike as their counterparts in other coalition nations of what seems to be an idiotic attempt to ‘bring democracy' to the people of the Middle East by cluster-bombing them. Religious Poles follow the Vatican line that foreign intervention of this kind is sinful.
So getting troops out of Iraq – and the sooner the better – will be a popular political move at home. The terms that the pull-out takes will be decided in Washington this weekend.
But the only people who should be able to decide if Polish, British or US troops stay or leave are the Iraqis themselves. If anyone took the trouble to ask them, they would – like you and I would if we had foreigners occupying our land – tell them all to get out, now, and fast.
But then, what ordinary Iraqis want has never been at the top of the list of priorities in this bloody and ridiculous war.