WASHINGTON – Facing pressure to withdraw his troops, Poland's (search) prime minister told President Bush on Monday that "no one wants to stay in Iraq forever." Polish-led forces turned over control of two provinces to Marines because of the worsening violence in Najaf (search).
President Bush said Poles "have been great allies" in Iraq and their troops have performed "brilliantly."
Bush met in the Oval Office with Prime Minister Marek Belka, who came to Washington to talk with the president and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld about transferring more military duties to Iraqis in the Polish-led zone after withdrawals by Spain and other countries.
Public opinion polls show that Poles overwhelmingly want to bring their troops home.
Poland is among 20 countries with troops in Iraq that have issued statements vowing not to yield to hostage-takers. The State Department said Monday that Poland, Azerbaijan, Italy, Japan, Lithuania, Netherlands, Romania and Ukraine were the latest to make the statements.
Twelve others in the U.S.-led coalition have not made the commitment, but State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said he expected at least some eventually would agree.
Bush said that when it comes to polls, "I try to make my decisions based upon what I think is right. Moving Saddam Hussein from power was the right thing to do. The world is safer for it. ... And the Iraqi people are better off because of it."
In Iraq, the Polish-led multinational force returned control for Najaf and Qadisiyah provinces to U.S. troops only 10 days after assuming responsibility. The change was because of growing violence in Najaf, where U.S. troops are battling loyalists of Moqtada al-Sadr (search), a radical Shiite cleric.
Belka said he did not talk with Bush about troops numbers or withdrawal dates.
"Well, I guess no one wants to stay in Iraq forever," Belka said. "It's a sovereign country. It has its own internationally recognized government. And we treat our presence in Iraq as serving this country to stabilize and stand on its own feet."
Talking about the fighting against al-Sadr, Bush said the United States was acting in support of Iraq's interim prime minister, Ayad Allawi.
"Our troops were engaged against Sadr's militia and so were the Iraqis," the president said. "It appears that we're making pretty good progress about stabilizing Najaf. Prime Minister Allawi's now in charge of the country."
Bush said of Allawi, "if he's got some suggestions to make, we're more than willing to listen to him."
Poland has led the multinational force in Iraq since the war.
It once was a 23-nation force of 9,500 troops responsible for south-central Iraq but has dwindled to 6,200 troops from 16 countries after several pulled out, most notably Spain, which withdrew its 1,300 soldiers after the election of a new government.
Poland has stressed it will not abandon its role leading the force, even though it is unpopular at home.
But Polish officials have said they would like to reduce its troops from 2,400 to between 1,000 and 1,500 and put more of the burden on Iraqi forces by early next year.
Bush also said the United States would take steps to address Poland's unhappiness about visa requirements for Poles traveling to the United States. He said he was instructing Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge to begin "a reform of the process."
Meanwhile, the Bush administration kept its distance from Ahmad Chalabi, a former leader in postwar Iraq who had strong ties to the United States and is now accused of counterfeiting.
"This is not a question of past associations or friendships," State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said of a warrant for Chalabi's arrest. "This is a question of the Iraqi justice system at work. And we are going to play the appropriate role, which is to let that process take its course."
"These charges are certainly new to us," Ereli said Monday of the charges against the former exile leader, who opposed President Saddam Hussein and was paid $340,000 a month for intelligence by the U.S. government until May.