Poland looks prepared to hang on

Observations on troops in Iraq

Will Poland follow Spain and withdraw its troops from Iraq? Everyone seems to think it soon will, and the death on 7 May of an award-winning Polish TV reporter, shot in a car on his way to Najaf, near Baghdad, increased international speculation about a withdrawal. Poland has also lost four soldiers - a small number compared to the US, but the first Polish combat casualties since the Second World War.

Yet Marek Belka, Poland's interim prime minister, said: "We are still going to fulfil our mission. Tragedies will not influence the speed at which we pull out Polish troops from Iraq." President Aleksander Kwasniewski said that although "one of the greatest Polish journalists" had died, this would not alter Poland's mission to stabilise Iraq.

Back in March, however, Kwasniewski seemed keen to stress withdrawal dates and suggested on radio that troops would be out at the start of 2005.

Although religious leaders such as Bishop Slawoj Glodz - quoted in a US Catholic online newspaper as saying that "our soldiers know their task is justified, that it conforms with standards of human civilisation and culture" - support the occupation, public support for it is declining. More than half the country, according to one recent poll, is now opposed to the intervention.

Certainly there seems little enthusiasm among Polish youth, who face an obligatory year of military service. One young man I met showed me a letter from the army commander of his area which "kindly requests" that he show proof of whether he is still studying or is married or has children. Along with mental and physical disability, these are all reasons for military service to be delayed. Unfortunately, none of them applied to this young man, who is category "A", meaning he is ready for active service. He wants to invent a reason to get out of it. Another young man said that, if he receives a letter, "I'll just claim I never received one and keep moving house".

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