By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, February 7, 2006
WARSAW -- Poland's new president, Lech Kaczynski, said his country might keep troops in Iraq until sometime in 2007 if necessary, in an extension of its military commitment there, even as other nations are withdrawing or making plans to do so.
In an interview in advance of a visit this week to Washington, where he is to meet President Bush and other U.S. officials, Kaczynski said Poland had no second thoughts about joining the multinational invasion and occupation of Iraq. He defended the removal of Saddam Hussein as "the right thing to do," despite the failure to find weapons of mass destruction and the continuing Iraqi insurgency.
At the same time, Kaczynski said he would look for reassurance from Washington that Poland's strong support of U.S. policy would be rewarded with military aid, increased trade and other benefits. Poland stands out in Europe as one of America's most reliable allies, although opinion surveys show that many Poles feel their backing of the United States has not paid off as much as they would like.
"Poland is, and knows how to be, a loyal ally," Kaczynski said during an hour-long interview Friday at the presidential palace here. "But we also want a similar loyalty shown toward us. We hope we will have a strategic partnership with the United States in areas that are most important for Poland as well."
Poland had announced last year that it would withdraw the remainder of its 1,500 troops -- which oversee a multinational force that patrols a section of central Iraq -- by the start of this year. But last fall, voters elected a new government dominated by Kaczynski's Law and Justice Party, which agreed to revisit the decision.
Shortly after taking office in December, Kaczynski said he would permit Polish forces to stay in Iraq until the end of 2006, although the number of troops would be whittled down to 900. The timing of the announcement was noteworthy, coming days after Bulgaria and Ukraine announced that they had completed a pullout of their forces from Iraq and other nations said they were looking to leave as well.
In the interview, Kaczynski said a Polish contingent could stay even longer, until sometime in 2007, although he did not make a firm commitment. "I hope that in the general course of changes in Iraq, they won't be necessary," he said. "We could extend it for a period. I do not exclude it as a possibility, but it would only be for a short time."
Surveys show that Poland is a pro-American bastion in Europe. A July poll commissioned by the German Marshall Fund of the United States found that 52 percent of Poles approved of Bush's foreign policy -- by far the highest level in Europe and higher even than for Americans who were questioned in the same survey.
Kaczynski is scheduled to meet with Bush on Thursday in his second official foreign trip as president. In Bush's fiscal 2007 budget request unveiled Monday, Poland would receive $30 million "to continue defense reform" -- the same amount as in 2006 -- although the proposal cut the overall budget for military aid in Europe.
While he has pledged to maintain strong ties with the United States, Kaczynski faces pressure to demonstrate that he can win more tangible signs of support, especially in light of Poland's steadfast backing of U.S. policy in Iraq. Many Poles are angry that they must cope with expensive and cumbersome requirements to obtain U.S. visas -- for example, paying a $100 nonrefundable application fee -- unlike residents of most West European nations. They would also like to see more direct economic benefits, analysts said.
Jacek Kucharczyk, deputy director of the Institute of Public Affairs in Warsaw, said Kaczynski himself was among those who had criticized his predecessor, Aleksander Kwasniewski, for not winning more concessions from Washington, such as contracts for Polish firms to help rebuild Iraq.
"One thing is clear: People think Poland did not get as much out of this alliance as it should have," he said. "Now Kaczynski will have the opportunity to put his money where his mouth is, and we'll see how much better he can perform where Kwasniewski failed."
Kaczynski came from behind to win the presidency in a runoff in October. His identical twin brother, Jaroslaw, was in line to become prime minister when their stridently anti-communist Law and Justice Party won a plurality of seats in Parliament, which would have given the Kaczynski twins control over the top two jobs in government.
Jaroslaw Kaczynski agreed to nominate another party leader, Kazmierz Marcinkiewicz, as prime minister in response to public unease about the prospect of having two look-alike brothers holding the country's most powerful positions.
But analysts said Jaroslaw Kaczynski still effectively controls the Parliament and even delivers marching orders on occasion to his brother, the president. Lech Kaczynski did nothing to dispel the perception when, in his victory speech after winning the presidency, he saluted his brother by saying, "Mr. Chairman, mission accomplished."
Lech Kaczynski said he speaks with his brother several times a day on the telephone but played down the idea that they effectively control the government together.
"We're very loyal, both in politics and to each other. I don't hide that. But saying that the two Kaczynskis are ruling this country is the truth only to a certain extent," he said, citing the role played by Marcinkiewicz, the prime minister. "I don't see any threat to democracy here. I was chosen to be president in direct elections in which people knew very well that there were two Kaczynskis. Broadly speaking, society decided things."
Staff writer Glenn Kessler in Washington contributed to this report.