Going international, with or without the UN

International | IRAQ: Handover of some military control to Poland is equal parts symbolism and substance

Issue: "Pryor commitment," Sept. 13, 2003

It was a moment with as much symbolic import for survivors of the Cold War as for those who've outlasted the war on terror in Iraq. At Camp Babylon on Sept. 3, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, top U.S. commander in Iraq, handed over control of five central provinces to Gen. Andrzej Tyszkiewicz of Poland. Scarcely a generation ago Poland was under sway of an iron curtain not so unlike Saddam-era oppression.

For the Bush administration, the transfer was a stick-before-carrot maneuver. Pressed by internationalists to turn over postwar Iraq to multinational forces, the president turned to longstanding allies who supported him when the UN would not. In doing so, he may force not only a political realignment of the Middle East but one for Europe, too.

Poland, Spain, and Ukraine, who will together patrol the five south-central provinces, were with Britain and Australia the staunchest U.S. allies in the UN fight over war in Iraq. It was no accident that Lt. Gen. Sanchez handed off the first baton to Poland. Even before the war on terror, Poland had a long-standing partnership with the United States on Iraq. Poland represented U.S. diplomatic interests in Baghdad during the years between the two Iraq wars. Its GROM commandoes proved pivotal in the early days of war to capture the port at Umm Kasr.

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After the Sept. 3 handover, Secretary of State Colin Powell offered a draft resolution to the UN Security Council. "We are asking the international community to join us," Mr. Powell told a news conference in Washington the same day, while stressing that the United States will continue to "play a dominant role ... because of the size of the U.S. force presence and the leadership we are providing. But there are many roles to be played."

The United States is asking for a multinational force to assist in occupation of Iraq, and for reconstruction and other help from UN agencies in what Mr. Powell described as a "vital role that the president always expected them to do in such areas."

A series of car bombs, culminating in one that killed 125 people last month in Najaf (now part of the area under Polish control), prompted the United States to seek more international cooperation.

Mr. Powell consulted with UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, as well as Security Council delegates from France, Russia, and Germany-the main opposition to the U.S. war in Iraq. Opposing two previous U.S.-drafted resolutions on Iraq, the troika isn't likely to quickly fall in line behind this one. Germany's UN ambassador says he wants a "central role for the United Nations" in Iraq, while French envoy Michel Duclos says his country will insist on a deadline to end the U.S. occupation.

If the UN resolution fails, it will further cripple the world body while hardly limiting the multinational scope of Iraqi security. Already 30 nations have positioned soldiers under U.S. Central Command there, and 10 more have pledged to do so. About 150,000 U.S. soldiers are currently in Iraq, 11,000 British soldiers, and 10,000 others.

Asking Poland to lead the first multinational command is part of a U.S. strategy to lure other countries into the coalition under Poland. U.S. officials hope allies, including Muslim-dominated countries, will support a Polish-led contingent where coming under direct U.S. control would be political suicide.

Poland needs some political clout of its own heading into a showdown with the European Union over a constitution that will bring it and nine other nations into the EU next year. The largest of the so-called "dwarf" countries in Europe-with 40 million people-Poland has failed to gain EU membership despite being the first to break with Soviet control, being the sixth-largest nation in Europe, and supporting one of the continent's largest armies-three times larger than Canada's. With a long history of participation in UN peacekeeping missions, from the Korean Peninsula to the Golan Heights to Haiti, Poland may now need fame in Baghdad to gain weight in Brussels.


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