WASHINGTON – President Aleksander Kwasniewski (search), a key Washington ally, said Thursday he may withdraw troops early from Iraq and that Poland was "misled" about the threat of Saddam Hussein's (search) weapons of mass destruction.
His remarks to a small group of European reporters were his first hint of criticism about war in Iraq, where Poland currently has 2,400 troops and with the United States and Britain commands one of three sectors of the U.S.-led occupation.
"Naturally, one may protest the reasons for the war action in Iraq. I personally think that today, Iraq without Saddam Hussein is a truly better Iraq than with Saddam Hussein," Kwasniewski told the European reporters.
"But naturally I also feel uncomfortable due to the fact that we were misled with the information on weapons of mass destruction," he said, according to a transcript released by the presidential press office.
President Bush, in the chow line with troops at Fort Campbell, Ky., after delivering a speech, was asked about Kwasniewski's remarks but shook his head and said, "I'm here to eat."
After the upset Sunday of Bush's close ally in Spain, Jose Maria Aznar, the Polish president's remarks add fuel to the notion that the Atlantic alliance is strained.
"I was astonished by those comments. If they were true, they mean the preparation of an exit strategy. Al Qaeda's domino theory may be dangerously realistic," said Radek Sikorski, director of the American Enterprise Institute's New Atlantic Initiative (search).
Poles were always skeptical of the war in Iraq, opposing it by a margin of 2-to-1, Sikorski said. "They don’t see it as part of the war on terrorism. They see it as a war of choice, as a favor we gave to the Americans."
These views are putting pressure on Polish leaders, said Sikorski, a former Polish deputy minister of foreign affairs. "Polish politicians, like politicians everywhere, want to be reelected. Involvement with the U.S., involvement with Iraq is a vote loser."
Earlier on Thursday, Kwasniewski said Poland may start withdrawing its troops from Iraq early next year, months earlier than the previously stated date of mid-2005. He cited progress toward stabilizing Iraq.
"Everything suggests that pullout from Iraq may be possible after the stabilization mission is crowned with success and, in my assessment soon, it may be the start of 2005," Kwasniewski told RMF-FM radio.
His comments came days after Spain's new government, taking power in the wake of Madrid bombings apparently linked to Al Qaeda (search), said it would pull its troops from Iraq by June 30 unless the United Nations takes over.
The 9,500-strong multinational force that Poland commands in south-central Iraq includes 1,300 Spaniards.
Kwasniewski noted that Iraq now has an interim constitution and said should soon have an interim government that will allow current forces to be replaced by peacekeepers.
He insisted that Poland's possible early withdrawal would not be prompted by fears of terror attacks or reprisals against his country for its role in Iraq.
"We are facing the same threat as Spain," Kwasniewski said, but "terrorism must be combated, also with force."
Kwasniewski is a key European ally of President Bush, although support for the military presence in Iraq has been far from overwhelming among Poles.
A poll last week found 42 percent of adults in favor and 53 percent opposed. The CBOS survey had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
Fox News' Peter Brownfeld and the Associated Press contributed to this report.