Poland turned over control of an area south of Baghdad to American troops on Saturday, making it the latest in a string of countries to leave the dwindling U.S.-led coalition.
As a band played their national anthem, Polish soldiers hoisted Poland’s red and white flag on a parade field at their main base, Camp Echo, just outside Diwaniya.
Maj. Gen. Andrzej Malinowski, the top Polish commander in Iraq, knelt on the gravel-covered field and ceremoniously kissed a sky blue banner with the words “Operation Iraqi Freedom” and the image of a dove.
The top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. Ray Odierno, said “the timing is right” for Poland’s departure thanks to a sharp drop in violence that is also allowing the U.S. to withdraw extra troops deployed last year and transfer more responsibility to Iraqis.
But some Poles say that leaving as things are getting better means the East European country could miss out on economic rewards in Iraq.
“Now in Iraq, the situation is stabilizing and the time has come for economic benefits,” said Leszek Miller, who was prime minister when Poland joined the U.S.-led coalition in 2003.
Polish Defense Minister Bogdan Klich said there was still hope for building those economic ties.
“Completing our mission doesn’t mean we finish our engagement with this country,” Klich said during the ceremony. Poland, he added, is interested “in collaborating in the sphere of economy, finances and business with the hosts of this land.”
Polish special forces fought in the 2003 invasion, and the country went on to command an international coalition that at its peak had troops from more than 20 countries and oversaw five southern provinces. At first, Poland kept 2,500 soldiers in the country, but the numbers gradually fell to 900.
Also Saturday, two U.S. helicopters collided in Baghdad while landing at a base, killing one Iraqi soldier, the military said. The U.S. military It said hostile fire did not appear to be the cause.
The two Black Hawks crashed shortly before 9 p.m. in the northern district of Adhamiya, the military said. Two U.S. troops and two Iraqis were injured, but the total number of people on board was not yet known, a statement said.
Two Iraqi police officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the crash occurred during clashes between gunmen and U.S.-backed Iraqi forces in north Baghdad.
A U.S. official denied the account, saying, “We have absolutely no reports of any clashes taking place nearby.”