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The Warsaw Voice » Politics » October 22, 2008
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Iraq Mission Over
October 22, 2008 By W.¯.    
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Polish soldiers are leaving Iraq after more than five years of service in that country. The mission of the Polish troop contingent ends Oct. 31.

The Poles handed over the command of the Multinational Division Central-South in Iraq to the Americans Oct. 4 in an official ceremony held at the Echo base in Al Diwaniyah.

Gen. Andrzej Malinowski, the commander of the Polish contingent in Iraq, is preparing for the trip back home together with a contingent of almost 600 troops. They will only leave behind a group of around 20 men to train Iraqi security forces as part of a NATO mission.

Iraqi and American military officials as well as local government officials attended the Al Diwaniyah ceremony. All thanked the Polish soldiers for their five years in Iraq. U.S. Gen. Raymond Odierno, the commander of the coalition forces, said the Americans could "always count on the Poles."

Polish Defense Minister Bogdan Klich thanked the soldiers for their commitment and said that Poland was proud of its army. He added that the troops that had been stationed in Iraq for five years would provide a "modernization drive" for Poland's armed forces. The Polish troops' service in international forces in Iraq has been a major boon to the future of Poland's armed forces, which are soon to abolish conscription, Klich said.

"As far as political and military issues are concerned, our five-year presence in Iraq has been an evident success, but in terms of business, trade, economic contacts and financial cooperation, Poland has not benefited from its tremendous effort in the Iraq operation at all," Klich said, but added in the next breath that the responsibility rested with the leftist government of Leszek Miller, which decided in 2003 to send Polish troops to Iraq. "Before deciding on joining the Americans in the operation, that government should have had a firm talk with the Americans on what we would get from it," said Klich.

Poland backed the American invasion of Iraq in March 2003. The stabilization mission started at the beginning of September that year. The Central-South division took over the responsibility for the central-southern zone, which at the time encompassed five of Iraq's 18 provinces, Babil, Karbala, An Najaf, Al-Qadisiyyah, and Wasit. Initially, the Polish troops stayed in Iraq by virtue of agreements with the occupation Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA); then UN Security Council resolutions became the legal basis for the multinational division's operations.

The Polish contingent constituted the core of the division from the start. At first it consisted of almost 2,500 troops, while the entire division had over 9,000 soldiers from 21 countries, including Ukraine, Bulgaria, Romania, Mongolia, Hungary, Lithuania, Latvia, Slovakia, Spain, and Latin American countries.

Poland covered around 40 percent of the cost of the Polish contingent's stationing in Iraq. The Polish government paid for the equipment and munitions, and it also picked up the personnel costs, whereas the accommodation, logistics and transportation expenses were met by the United States. Last year, the Polish government earmarked around zl.80 million for the Iraq contingent.

At first, the Polish contingent handled stabilization tasks such as assistance in rebuilding Iraq's infrastructure, which included setting up water treatment plants, supplying equipment for schools and orphanages, and helping build up the country's civilian administration. At the same time, the Polish troops patrolled the area and convoyed shipments. The division's mandate did not include offensive military operations, but in an emergency, exemplified by the 2004 rebellion led by radical Shiite theologian Muqtada al-Sadr, the soldiers took to arms to protect the headquarters of the local Iraqi authorities and resist rebel attacks.

When things became calmer, the mission focused on training and consulting. The Polish soldiers helped train the newly formed Iraqi forces. The Polish contingent gradually shrank to 1,600, 1,400 and finally around 900 troops.

In December 2005, Iraq's Eighth Infantry Division of 9,000 troops trained by the coalition soldiers was authorized to assume responsibility for the region "when the time was right."

At the end of January last year, Al Diwaniyah and Wasit became the first provinces to be controlled by the Iraqis, who took over from the coalition forces.

In the spring of last year, the Polish contingent resumed combat operations as the situation in Al Diwaniyah worsened. The Echo base came under mortar fire, patrols and convoys were attacked on roads, and gangs started terrorizing the locals. The Polish troops set up posts in the city and backed the Iraqi military in its operations.

Maj. Hieronim Kupczyk was the first Polish soldier to be killed in Iraq Nov. 6, 2003. In all, the war in Iraq has claimed the lives of 22 Polish soldiers, three ex-soldiers hired by foreign security companies, two reporters, and an officer working for Poland's Government Protection Office (BOR). In October last year, Polish Ambassador to Iraq Edward Pietrzyk sustained severe injuries in an attack on a convoy in Baghdad. The last Polish casualty in Iraq to date is Sgt. Andrzej Filipek, who was killed last November.

For fear of revenge, many of the Iraqis who have worked with the Polish contingent are clamoring to leave together with the retreating troops. These include translators who want to emigrate to Poland with their families. All will likely be granted asylum and residency rights, Polish officials say.
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