For the Washington-Warsaw alliance, a test in Iraq

Historically more accustomed to being occupied than occupying, Poland takes charge Wednesday of policing part of Iraq - alarming critics at home.

It's noon, and down main street, Harley-Davidsons and vintage Cadillacs parade by as country music blares and the Stars and Stripes flutter from the car windows.

Welcome to the Mrongoville Country Piknik, in downtown Mragowo, deep in the heartland of Poland and thousands of miles from Tennessee.

Born during popular opposition to the martial law of the 1980s, Poland's oldest music festival is described by organizers as a "unique feast of country music and folklore." For artistic director Korneliusz Pacuda it is "living evidence" of the former communist country's special relationship with the US.

But this transatlantic bond is set to be tested in the coming weeks and months as Poland assumes command of a swath of postwar Iraq. A force of 2,500 Polish troops is poised to lead a multinational peacekeeping brigade that will relieve a US Marine expeditionary force in Poland's biggest military operation since World War II.

Critics in Poland warn that a majority of their fellow countrymen oppose the Iraq mission and that Polish casualties could unite the country's fragmented opposition and topple its pro-American leaders.

"The mission is the most risky decision this government has taken," says Professor Tadeusz Iwinski, senior foreign policy adviser to Polish Prime Minister Leszek Miller. "If there are major casualties, it could lead to a parliamentary rebellion, an erosion of the government's majority, and an end to this administration."

General Andrzej Tyszkiewicz will oversee an area of Iraq one-third the size of Poland, running from the border with Iran to the Saudi frontier, and sandwiched between the US and British zones. A formal transfer ceremony is set for Wednesday at Polish headquarters near the ancient city of Babylon. But US Marines will continue to control the city of Najaf until at least Sept. 21, following a bombing at a mosque there Friday that killed prominent cleric Mohammed Bakir al-Hakim and at least 80 others.

Poland was among countries that supported the preemptive strike on Iraq. In the often acrimonious international debate before the US invasion, US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld drew a pointed distinction between "old Europe" - primarily France and Germany, which opposed the war - and "new Europe," Eastern European countries, led by Poland, that have established close links with Washington since the collapse of the Soviet bloc.

Poland's alignment with the US has set Warsaw at odds with its senior partners in Paris and Berlin ahead of formal entrance to the European Union (EU) next spring. The largest new entrant to the union, Poland is routinely referred to in European media as Washington's "Trojan horse" in the EU.

"Poland's main long-term goal is to boost its international status, most of all by allying closely with the US. The controversy is whether this will give us positive leverage in relations with the EU or maybe ... harms it [instead]," says Robert Stefanicki, a correspondent with the influential Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza who spent months in Iraq covering the conflict.

After the difficulty in finding allies willing to commit troops in Iraq, the US is talking up the international standing of Poland, which joined NATO in 1999. The alliance's "center is shifting eastwards," US ambassador to NATO Nicholas Burns, said during a recent visit. "Poland is emerging as one of the more powerful countries in NATO."

But these words followed intense political pressure that left many in Warsaw feeling there was little choice but to take part in policing postwar Iraq. "You simply don't say 'no' to the Americans," said Bronislaw Komorowski, defense minister in the previous center-right cabinet that oversaw Poland's NATO entry.

In Warsaw, the supposed capital of new Europe, there are signs of opposition to the policy. Opinion polls at the outbreak of hostilities in Iraq showed two-thirds of Poles opposed the war, and even after the fall of Baghdad that figure remains at more than 55 percent.

"There is a big silent majority. And they know this is not a peace mission; this is an occupation," says Maciej Wieczorkowski, a veteran political observer and board member of Amnesty International, Poland. "People here will go into shock when Poles start coming home in body bags," warns Philip Ilkowski, a student and spokesperson for Poland's Stop the War Coalition.

Warsaw's troops came under mortar fire early last week from Saddam Hussein loyalists shortly before taking control of the first province in the zone Poland will eventually control. No injuries were reported.

For a country that is more accustomed to being occupied, the presence of Polish troops on potentially hostile foreign soil is an alien idea. The abiding image of the Polish Army has been that of the doomed cavalryman who charged the oncoming Panzers of Nazi Germany's 1939 invasion forces, matching his medieval lance against the might of mechanized armor. After the attack on Iraq, Warsaw cartoonists satirically recast the cavalryman as a callow accomplice to the invaders, a tiny figure trotting alongside the US tanks overwhelming Saddam Hussein's army.

Corruption scandals have exhausted the government of Mr. Miller, who now has an approval rating of just 16 percent. With unemployment at 20 percent and the country's outdated agricultural sector facing a painful transition into Europe's common market, many Poles look askance at the decision to launch a foreign operation rather than address domestic crises.

Andrzej Stasiuk, a Polish essayist, poet, and former anticommunist dissident, argues that the Warsaw administration will gain little from its Iraq gamble. "It is easier to occupy, or - pardon me - to stabilize Iraq than to admit, deep in our hearts, that we ourselves need stabilization from Europe," he wrote in Germany's Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

After the bombing of the UN's Baghdad headquarters Aug. 19, concerns are mounting that the Polish government has left its troops in the firing line. Polish general and strategy expert Stanislaw Kosiey, warned in the conservative daily Rceczpospolita of a "new Vietnam" with increasing and increasingly organized attacks on occupying troops that "could last many years."

Ultimately, Mr. Stasiuk believes, his countrymen will turn their back on the US and its supporters in the Warsaw government: "The nation knows only too well that this government will be replaced, the same as all the previous governments were replaced. And the next one, according to our tradition, will attempt to discredit its predecessors so radically that it will probably ally with Antarctica and declare a war against America."

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