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Poland Adds to Coalition Troop Cuts

Times Staff Writer

The U.S.-led international military coalition in Iraq shrank further Tuesday after Bulgaria and Ukraine completed troop withdrawals and Poland announced it was reducing its contingent 40% while switching to a noncombat role.

Responding to appeals by U.S. officials, the Polish government reversed an earlier plan to remove all of its troops by the end of this year. But officials of the East European nation said the 900 remaining soldiers of its previous 1,500-strong force would focus almost exclusively on training Iraqis as they wind down their mission over the next year.

Prime Minister Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz said in Warsaw that the government would like to complete the drawdown of its forces “not in an abrupt way, but gradually.”

In a previously announced departure, Ukraine removed a final 876 troops. Bulgaria withdrew 380.

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America’s partners in the “coalition of the willing,” as the Bush administration had dubbed it, have dwindled from a peak of 38 nations and 50,000 troops in mid-2003 to 27 countries and about 22,000 troops, according to a recent State Department tally. Most of the remaining countries have announced that they will end their participation in 2006.

Because only the 8,000-member British force plays a substantial combat role, the disappearance of the international contingent would not be a major military setback for the United States. But the departures represent a political setback for the administration, because foreign troops help lend international legitimacy to the effort to build a new Iraq.

U.S. officials recently have stepped up their efforts to build international support for Iraq in hope of strengthening the young government in Baghdad. U.S. and Iraqi officials have been urging coalition members around the world to delay their departures.

Polish officials have made it clear that they hope their continuing cooperation will result in a payoff in the form of U.S. aid, although they insist that the decision to stay is not linked to it. They have pressed for additional American help in modernizing their military, pointing out that their own military reform program has been hindered by the cost of Polish operations in Iraq.

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The issues were discussed this month in Washington, where Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld met with Polish Defense Minister Radek Sikorski and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with Polish Foreign Minister Stefan Meller.

Marek Purowski, a spokesman for the Polish Embassy in Washington, said U.S. officials had appealed to Polish leaders to extend the Iraq mission, adding that he hoped their cooperation would help persuade Washington to contribute to the modernization of the Polish armed forces.

“We do expect some help from the United States, in modernizing our army and keeping it up to date,” Purowski said. He said that the $600-million cost of the Iraq deployment equaled 10% of the country’s military budget.

Poland’s troop presence in Iraq is opposed by about 70% of the public there, according to a poll. But Purowski said Poland was committed to the Iraq mission and decided to extend the troops’ stay “to finish what we started.” He insisted, however, that Polish cooperation in Iraq was “absolutely not based on the fact that we expect something in return.”

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Still, Polish leaders have voiced hopes that their participation would yield valuable reconstruction contracts and persuade Washington to soften its tough policy on visas for Poles. Neither has happened, however, even though President Bush and other U.S. leaders have lavishly praised Warsaw for its support of the mission.

Air Force Maj. Todd Vician, a Pentagon spokesman, said the Defense Department was pleased that Poland had extended its troops’ presence in Iraq.

He said that the country “has played a vital role in promoting democracy and security in Iraq” and that its decision was “another sign of support for the Iraqi people in their quest for freedom and a new way of life.”

The White House said it respected the decisions made by Poland, Bulgaria and Ukraine but declined to discuss the effect they might have on U.S. plans to reduce its forces next year.

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“Those are questions the president has always left to his military commanders in the field,” White House Deputy Press Secretary Trent Duffy told reporters in Crawford, Texas, where Bush is spending the week at his ranch.

“Decisions on whether or at what level to support the mission in Iraq ... are decisions for those countries to make on their own,” Duffy said. “We respect those decisions.”

South Korea, which is the largest contributor of troops after Britain, is expected to pull out about 1,000 of its 3,200 service members in the first half of 2006. Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said last month that Italy’s 2,900 troops in Iraq would probably all go home next year. The list of countries whose forces remain in Iraq includes many small or poor nations that stand to benefit from a good relationship with the United States. During a November stop in Mongolia, Bush praised the Asian country’s 120 “fearless warriors” who are serving in Iraq and pledged $11 million in aid for Mongolia.

The 27 countries with troops still serving in Iraq are: Albania, Armenia, Australia, Azerbaijan, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Britain, Czech Republic, Denmark, El Salvador, Estonia, Georgia, Italy, Japan, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Moldova, Mongolia, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Singapore, Slovakia and South Korea.

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