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E. European support waning in Iraq

Poland, slated to withdraw, may decide to stay after meetings with US officials in Washington this week.

By John DyerCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / December 6, 2005



SOFIA, BULGARIA

"New Europe" is saying goodbye to Iraq.

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Some of the former East bloc's largest contingents in the US-led coalition are slated to bow out of fighting after Iraq's parliamentary elections in December.

"One of the main reasons [for leaving] was the growing negative public opinion in Ukraine towards the deployment of our troops in Iraq," says Ihor Dolhov, a deputy foreign minister in Ukraine.

The expected exit of Poland, Bulgaria, and Ukraine signals both an acknowledgment of their citizens' disapproval of the war as well as a diplomatic swing back toward their erstwhile critics in western Europe, who reproached them for joining the 2003 invasion. But transatlantic ties proved to be critical in the original decisionmaking process, says Vessela Tcherneva, an analyst at the Centre for Liberal Strategies here in Sofia, Bulgaria.

And their role may not be over: The new Polish government, considering a repeal of the former government's plans for withdrawal, could be influenced by meetings with US officials in Washington this week. Polish Defense Minister Radek Sikorski will talk with US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld Wednesday.

Eastern European countries joined the war because, like Poland, they wanted to pay the US back for helping them join NATO, or, like Bulgaria and Ukraine, they were seeking NATO membership when President George Bush issued his call to arms, says Ms. Tcherneva.

Bulgaria joined NATO last year. Ukraine is still negotiating for membership. But in solidifying their places in NATO, eastern European leaders strained relations with their western European counterparts.

Now, Tcherneva says, east European politicians are more concerned with increasing their influence in Paris, Berlin, and Brussels, where they recently became EU members or are seeking membership: Poland joined the EU last year; Bulgaria is scheduled to join in 2007; and Ukraine is negotiating to join.

With a combined total of almost 2,700 troops, losing the three countries won't disrupt the US war effort. But their absence undermines the international support Mr. Rumsfeld cited when he said the new democracies of eastern Europe favored the invasion because they, like Iraqis, had suffered under totalitarian regimes.

Hungary and Moldova left Iraq earlier this year. Around 1,400 soldiers from a handful of other eastern European nations, from Romania to the tiny Baltic republics of the former Soviet Union, are expected to remain in 2006. International forces in the coalition total nearly 24,000, while the US has nearly 160,000, according to the Associated Press.

"We're aware of the debates going on in each country," says Lt. Col. Barry Venable, a Pentagon spokesman. "There's never been a timeline on the contributions. We never asked for one." But Mr. Venable added that US forces are prepared to pick up the departing soldiers' duties.

Polish commanders currently oversee a multi-national force, including more than 1,400 Polish troops, in a swath of south-central Iraq that extends from Saudi Arabia to Iran. Bulgaria's 380 troops were trained to handle chemical and biological attacks. Ukraine's nearly 900 soldiers provide security for convoys, municipal buildings and construction projects.

Small groups of officers from the three nations might stay in Iraq next year to train Iraqi soldiers and improve links between their governments and Baghdad, eastern European military spokesmen said.

Sixteen years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Eastern Europe is ready to show other regions how to embrace democracy peacefully, says Col. Leszek Laszczak, acting director of Poland's Ministry of Defense Information Center. [Editor's note: The original version misidentified Col. Laszczak's title.]

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