WARSAW, Poland – Poland (search) should withdraw its troops from Iraq by the end of next year, Polish leaders said Monday, the first time the key U.S. ally has indicated a timeframe for pulling its soldiers out of the wartorn nation.
President Aleksander Kwasniewski (search) said no final decision has been made on when to withdraw forces but Warsaw was considering the late 2005 deadline with the hopes that elections scheduled for January in Iraq would bring stability to the country.
"We decided to speak with the Iraqis and our coalition partners (and) the United States about a reduction of the Polish forces from Jan. 1 — and maybe to finish our mission at the end of 2005," Kwasniewski said on a visit to Paris.
The issue was sparked when Defense Minister Jerzy Szmajdzinski mentioned the possible pullout date in an interview, the first Polish official to do so publicly.
Szmajdzinski argued that 21/2 years in Iraq would be "enough" for the Polish military and said his suggestion was aimed at countering "cheap populism" by opponents of the Polish presence. However, he later said his remarks were his "personal opinion" and "not the official position of the government."
"In my opinion, the deadline should be the date of expiry of the U.N. Security Council's resolution 1546," Szmajdzinski was quoted as telling the Gazeta Wyborcza daily. That resolution provided for the handover of power to Iraqi authorities and includes steps that run through December 2005.
Prime Minister Marek Belka (search), who has maintained that he wants to transfer more authority to Iraq to make an eventual withdrawal possible, said he had not been consulted on Szmajdzinski's remarks.
"The prime minister expressed his displeasure with my public statement before the government adopts a formal stand," Szmajdzinski told reporters later in the day after a meeting between the two leaders.
In Washington, a senior White House official said the U.S. administration did not believe Poland had changed its position.
"Their position remains the same — that their troops would be there as long as it takes," the U.S. official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "The Poles have made clear their position is one where any decisions they make will be mission-driven."
Separately, Ukrainian authorities released a letter in which Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih asked the former Soviet republic not to withdraw its troops, saying the foreign forces were needed in Iraq to "face the ongoing reality of global terrorism."
Salih thanked Ukraine's president for his country's "contribution to the improvement of Iraq's security, economy, governance" and said withdrawing any of the nearly 1,600 Ukrainian troops would have grave consequences for Iraq and international community.
Ukraine has said it plans to reduce its contingent by 200 troops starting with the next rotation scheduled to be completed in October. President Leonid Kuchma had no immediate response to the letter.
Observers said the Polish defense minister's comments had less to do with state policy on Iraq than internal politics.
Belka's government faces a parliamentary vote of confidence on Oct. 15 and a leading member of his junior coalition partner, the Labor Union, has threatened to withdraw support for Belka unless he first presents a plan for pulling Polish troops out of Iraq.
The Iraq mission has broad political support in Poland but opposition has been growing among the Polish public. An opposition party, the Polish Peasants' Party (search), has launched a petition seeking an immediate pullout.
Poland last year took command of a multinational security force in central Iraq that currently includes about 6,000 troops, including more than 2,400 Polish soldiers.
Szmajdzinski said the mission in "such difficult conditions" is a major challenge for a former Warsaw Pact army that is still "reaching new capabilities and introducing new equipment."
"It is enough," he said. "It is a rational period of time."
In Paris, Kwasniewski said that he hoped the elections are going to bring stability to Iraq.
"Our plans are known: we want to reduce our forces after January 2005 and we are thinking very seriously about ending the mission . . . Will it be at the end of 2005 ... or another date? It's hard to say today," he said.