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NATO to Assist Poland in Leading Peacekeeping Force in Iraq - 2003-05-21

Ambassadors from the 19 NATO member nations have agreed to help Poland as it prepares to lead a multi-national force in southern Iraq, as part of a post-war stabilization program.

Although only limited technical assistance is involved, NATO Secretary General George Robertson hailed the move at alliance headquarters in Brussels.

"The first important, and indeed critical, step was taken today by unanimity in the council," he said.

Poland is working to put together a multi-national force of at least 7,000 troops to work in the south-central region of Iraq, between the U.S. and British zones.

Poland is expected to contribute about 2,000 of its own soldiers. Warsaw also is to host a conference starting Thursday with other nations that have expressed willingness to contribute.

The NATO assistance is expected to involve communications, logistics, and intelligence sharing - but no direct NATO involvement in Iraq.

"We are not talking about a NATO presence in Iraq," said Secretary General Robertson, indicating no decision on such a NATO role is imminent. "We are talking purely and simply about NATO help to Poland, which is intending to be in Iraq and to fulfill a role in the stabilization force," he added.

But diplomats say the move could signal the opening of a wider NATO role in Iraq. The alliance earlier agreed to take command in August of a Dutch-German led peacekeeping force in Kabul, Afghanistan.

Diplomats say the Iraq mission is a test for Poland, which joined NATO in 1999 and has worked hard to modernize its military.