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Last Updated: Wednesday, 3 September, 2003, 16:32 GMT 17:32 UK
Poland's thorny challenge
By Gabriel Partos
BBC Central and South-East Europe analyst

The transfer of command in the central region of Iraq from United States troops to the Polish-led multinational force comes at a time of continuing violence, with foreign troops among the main targets of attacks.

Poland, along with most of the former communist countries of Central Europe and the Balkans was a firm supporter of the US-led attack on Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

Polish troops at handover ceremony
The force has little experience of co-operation on the ground
And, alone among continental European countries, Poland sent a small military contingent to fight there during the war.

Now Warsaw is playing a perhaps even more important role by taking command of a 23-nation force of some 9,200 soldiers, whose task is to restore law and order in a large part of central Iraq, between the capital, Baghdad, and the southern city of Basra.

It is a region sandwiched between security zones that remain in the hands of US and British forces respectively.

Warsaw's pre-eminent role as a reliable supporter of Washington's policy is recognised by the fact that command of the central Iraq zone has been transferred to its troops.

Different conditions

A further reason is Poland's experience in peacekeeping operations, according to former defence minister Janusz Onyszkiewicz.

"Over several decades, Poland accumulated a considerable amount of experience in peacekeeping operations," he says.

I think that our experience is quite sufficient - our hope is that everything will go well
Janusz Onyszkiewicz
Former defence minister
"Recently in both Kosovo and Bosnia, Poles also served and in Bosnia a Pole was commander-in-chief of the Polish-Nordic Brigade, so I think that our experience is quite sufficient. Our hope is that everything will go well."

But while Poland's experience is invaluable, conditions in Iraq are very different from those prevailing either in Bosnia-Hercegovina or Kosovo.

Apprehension

Most importantly, peacekeepers in the Balkans have been deployed to police ceasefire agreements to put an end to conflict that in the case of Bosnia they had not really been involved in.

And in that instance, their direct involvement had been welcomed by the local majority Albanian population.

Polish soldier checks a armoured personnel carrier, Babylon, Iraq
Security issues are likely to be the main headache
As a result, they have not been viewed as the enemy and, with a very few exceptions, they have not been targeted for attacks.

By contrast, foreign troops in Iraq - so far the Americans and the British in particular - have been among the main targets of violence. The Polish-led multinational force is also likely to be regarded as an occupation force by at least some sections of Iraqi society and foreign Islamic fighters.

Therefore, there is apprehension in the countries that have sent military contingents to Iraq that their soldiers may soon be in the line of fire. Such fears have prompted many Poles - some 60% according to opinion polls - to oppose the despatch of their troops to Iraq.

There are other challenges, too. The 23-nation force over which Poland has command has relatively little experience in co-operation on the ground.

There are a few exceptions, such as the Polish-Ukrainian brigade that has been training for peacekeeping and other operations.

Equipment problems

But in general much needs to be done now to bring the level of intra-unit communications to a level that will make collaboration part of a practical agenda.

Other difficulties are also likely to persist. Bulgarian forces have already encountered several problems with poor equipment and the use of the wrong type of fuel for their vehicles.

In the short term, though, the precarious security situation is likely to remain the main headache. So much so that following last Friday's bomb attack that killed a senior Shia cleric and dozens of his supporters in the holy city of Najaf, US marines are going to stay in the area for another two to three weeks.

Then it will be down to Poland to have full control of the region - until next spring when Spain takes over.



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