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Prospect of War Chips Away at Poland’s Pro-Americanism

Times Staff Writers

Poland has often been called an “American Trojan horse” because of its rock-solid pro-American attitude. But when it comes to Iraq, cracks are beginning to appear.

“America is like this firefighter who extinguishes fires all the time. It’s time everyone helped them,” said Maria Kornatowska, 47, a Warsaw doctor. “But I’m not sure if war is the best solution.”

Recent surveys by the CBOS polling agency have shown that despite strong support by Polish leaders for the United States’ Iraq policy, 50% of Poles think that there should be no armed intervention regardless of what U.N. inspectors find, while 6% would support an invasion no matter what the inspectors find. Asked whether Poland should support U.S. armed action in Iraq if it takes place, 62% said no and 29% said yes.

Poles’ still-fresh feelings about the devastation their country suffered in World War II reinforce a gut reaction against military conflict.

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“War is part of our national identity. Even though I did not live through it, somehow it’s part of my psyche. I was raised hearing about it,” said Marzenna Latawiec, 43, a computer specialist and mother of three boys. “So generally, my attitude toward war is negative.”

With the family connections many Poles have to America and the history of a shared battle against communism, the link between the two nations is so strong that Western European critics say Poland serves U.S. interests on the continent -- hence the “Trojan horse” charge.

When President Bush welcomed Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski to the White House in January, he declared: “I’ve got no better friend in Europe today than Poland.”

Kwasniewski quickly replied that Poles would stand by America if diplomatic methods of disarming Iraq failed.

Wieslawa Borkowska-Wrobel, 56, a child-care worker, said she has “a very positive attitude toward America,” where her daughter has lived for the last nine years. But the stories she has heard of World War II strengthen her desire for peace.

“I am against any war,” she said.

Antiwar feelings in Poland are reinforced by the Vatican’s strong opposition to an attack on Iraq, says Edmund Wnuk-Lipinski, a sociologist at the Polish Academy of Sciences.

“Polish-born Pope John Paul II personally called on Catholics to pray for a peaceful solution to the Iraqi crisis,” Wnuk-Lipinski noted.

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Bozydar Zawistowski, 68, a pensioner, expressed the sort of anger at the U.S. more common in Western Europe: “I think that the U.S. has taken upon itself the right to rule the world.

“We here in Poland have lived through the tragedy of two world wars,” Zawistowski said. “I myself still remember the horrors of the German occupation.”

The Polish political elite remains staunchly pro-American. Even Poland’s former Communist strongman, Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, who introduced martial law in 1981 to suppress the Solidarity movement, said when asked whether Poland should take part in an Iraq operation: “Since we have become members of [the North Atlantic Treaty Organization] and declared the will to fulfill our obligations toward the pact, then it is logical that we should take part in it.”

Irritated by Franco-German reservations about a possible war with Iraq, eight European leaders, including Polish Prime Minister Leszek Miller, signed a letter in January supporting Bush. Soon after, a group of 10 Eastern European nations endorsed the U.S. position.

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“Thanks in large part to American bravery, generosity and farsightedness, Europe was set free from the two forms of tyranny that devastated our continent in the 20th century: Nazism and Communism,” the letter said.

Support for U.S. Iraq policy from former Soviet bloc states, many now seeking to join the European Union, drew an angry outburst from French President Jacques Chirac, who called their behavior “irresponsible and not very polite.”

“They missed a good opportunity to keep quiet,” Chirac added. He also brought up the possibility that EU expansion might not proceed as smoothly as has been hoped.

Chirac’s comments provoked a bitter backlash. Former Polish Foreign Minister Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, a prisoner at Auschwitz during World War II, observed that some people have short memories, intimating that the French should be grateful to America for liberating their country from Hitler.

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Poles’ affection for America will not be affected by disagreement on war in Iraq, Wnuk-Lipinski predicted.

“Those positive feelings are a result of something which is rooted much deeper,” he explained. “Poles think of America as a country which is powerful, democratic, economically successful. The attitude of Poles toward America is almost mythological. In no other country in the world -- except maybe America itself -- is there such a strong belief in the American dream.”

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Kasprzycka reported from Warsaw and Holley from Moscow.

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