Poland's defense minister has surprised his colleagues in the country's pro-U.S. government by suggesting that Warsaw should withdraw its nearly 2,500 troops from Iraq by the end of next year. It is the first time a top Polish official has indicated that his country's troops could be pulled out of Iraq.
The remarks by Defense Minister Jerzy Szmajdzinski, in an interview with the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza, caused a storm among his colleagues in government.
Prime Minister Marek Belka says he did not authorize Mr. Szmajdzinski to make any such statement. President Aleksander Kwasniewski says no timetable has been set for a Polish withdrawal from Iraq, but that Poland will begin reducing its presence after parliamentary elections in Iraq that are scheduled for next January. And Foreign Minister Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz says it is too early to set either a timetable or a date for a total pullout of Polish troops.
The defense minister, later in the day, tried to clear up the confusion by saying that he had only expressed his personal opinion and not that of the government.
In his view, Poland should withdraw when U.N. Security Council resolution 1546 expires in December of 2005. That resolution, the latest to be adopted on Iraq by the Security Council, provides for the eventual hand-over to a constitutionally elected government by the end of 2005.
Poland will hold elections next year, and opposition to its presence in Iraq is growing. Speaking from Warsaw, Piotr Stasinski, the deputy editor of Gazeta Wyborcza, says Mr. Szmajdzinski is trying to neutralize that opposition by suggesting a withdrawal date, but may have ended up exacerbating the pressure for a pullout.
"He wants this out of the election campaign, and you can figure that this was his intention," he said. "But if he did not have the consensus of Mr. Belka, the prime minister, and Mr. Cimoszewicz, the foreign minister, on that he showed that the government is in disarray. It is not a hot issue at the moment, and Szmajdzinski might have made a mistake making it a hot issue."
Prime Minister Belka, who served in the U.S.-led provisional administration in Iraq for nearly a year, heads a minority government that faces a parliamentary vote of confidence later this month. One of his coalition partners, the Labor Union, has threatened to withdraw its support from the government unless Mr. Belka offers a timetable for Poland's withdrawal from Iraq.