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Europe

Polish Troops Fighting in Iraq in Legal Limbo

Poland has sent troops to the Persian Gulf to support the U.S. Although its soldiers are fighting alongside the Americans, the government says it's not involved in war but just enforcing the U.N. embargo against Iraq.

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Polish soldiers trained to deal with chemical weapons are now stationed in Kuwait.

Photos of Polish soldiers deployed in Iraq cover the title pages of Poland's newspapers.

"Poland on the battlefield, our men pummel Saddam Hussein's armed forces," the Polish tabloid Super Express writes beneath an image of GROM members, the Polish special force that reportedly overwhelmed Iraqi militiamen in recent fighting.

Around 60 servicemen from the Polish army's special unit are fighting side-by-side with U.S. Marines in Iraq, Prime Minister Leszek Miller says.

"I can confirm that GROM soldiers have already carried out several successful campaigns in southern Iraq, in the coastal region of the Persian Gulf, without casualties on our side," he said. "These activities have been judged very professional and effective. Our soldiers are receiving very good grades."

Poland earmarked up to 200 soldiers for the mission, including the elite GROM unit, a special unit for fighting chemical weapons and the crew of the battleship Xaver Czernicki that provides logistical aid in support of the U.N. embargo against Iraq in the Persian Gulf.

From the very beginning, Poland promised the United States political and military support for military strikes against Iraq and proposed providing a contingent of 300 soldiers. The U.S. then hand-picked the servicemen they wanted to use, a spokesman for the Polish General Staff, Zdislaw Gnatowski, said.

"A question of honor and reason"

Leszek Miller

Prime Minister Leszek Miller

Poland's lower chamber of parliament approved the deployment on Wednesday with a large majority of 328 to 71 with 38 abstentions. Before the vote Prime Minister Miller (photo) told parliamentarians that participation in the "Coalition of the Willing," as the United States has dubbed the group of states that supports its actions in Iraq, is "justified by the [necessity for] solidarity with allies." It was a "question of honor and reason," he told parliament.

Some opposition members believe though that partaking in an offensive war violates the Polish constitution.

But the government doesn't view the deployment of Polish soldiers as an issue of war. Instead, it says that the measures are meant to enforce the U.N. embargo.

Poland is dispatching its troops based on U.N. resolution 1441, says Piotr Henryk Winczorek, an expert on the Polish constitution at Warsaw University. If, however, it is determined that the resolution is legally insufficient to warrant military action in Iraq, Polish participation may also be constitutionally dubious, says Winczorek.

"If the international legal basis is not ultimately clarified, the situation will remain complicated. If U.N. resolution 1441 is determined to be a sufficient reason, as the Americans maintain, then there will be a sort of chain reaction. First [comes] international law then Polish law. Then the matter would be settled," Winczorek told DW-RADIO.

"If, however, U.N. resolution 1441 is not sufficient -- I would rather not talk about it or even think about it," he said. "It would have far-reaching consequences."

No protest culture

Every day a small group of demonstrators collects in front of the U.S. Embassy in Warsaw to protest against the war. Although surveys have shown that more than 75 percent of Poles oppose the war, hardly more than 100 or 200 people come to the demonstrations. There is no pronounced peace movement in Poland, explains historian Wlodzimierz Borodzej from Warsaw University.

"There is no tradition of pacifism in Poland. In 1918, when the republic was reconstituted, Poles felt threatened by the majority of their neighbors, especially from Germany and the Soviet Union. The experiences of World War II compounded the fears. And after 1945 a pacifistic movement didn't emerge here, because people still believed that the threat from the West was real."

The fact that there is no tradition of pacifism in Poland means that "fear of the war does not translate into actions," Borodzej says.

The government's decision to support the United States is neither challenged by the large oppositional parties nor by the population. The U.S. is considered the most important guarantor of safety for Poland. But critics fear that Poland could have endangered its future position in the European Union by going against France and Germany.

Poland is due to join the European Union in January 2004.