Poles in Iraq VI: The Poles Take Over Their Sector

The day has finally come! – and even passed! I mean the day when the Polish occupation sector in Iraq officially came under Polish command, obviously a crucial event for our “Poles in Iraq” series.

Fortunately, I grabbed the relevant URLs while I still was in the US, so that I can still access the articles in the Polish press even if they are a day or two old. And now I am back at home-base in Amsterdam and can check out what they say.

Interestingly, the best account of the hand-over ceremony – and the issues surrounding the start of the Polish command – I find in the Krakow-based Dziennik Polski, in the article which appeared a few days ago entitled W Wiezy Babel, or “In the Tower of Babel.” As we will see, that reference to Babel is not just some headline-writer’s facile trick, taking advantage of the fact that this is all taking place in the area where the original Tower of Babel was said to have been built, but actually has some present-day relevance as well.

OK, about the hand-over ceremony: It took place last Tuesday, 2 September, in an ampitheater at Camp Babilon, near the Iraqi city of Hilla, which is the main camp for the Polish forces and those of twenty other countries contributing forces under Polish command. General Andrzej Tyszkiewicz took over command of the Polish sector from US General James Conway, commander of the First Marine Expeditionary Force, which is withdrawing from the sector. Also there was US Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, commander of all coalition forces in the country (he expressed his “full confidence” in the forces of the twenty-one countries), as well as the defense ministers from Poland, the Ukraine, and Spain. The Iraqis – let’s not forget them! – were there in the form of four leading sheikhs from the occupation zone, as thousands of ordinary spectators, and in the person of the governor of Babil province, Iskander Wofu (we learn his name not in the Dziennik Polski article, but rather in Gazeta Wyborcza), who expressed his gratefulness to the the coalition forces.

I particularly like the Dziennik article because of the great job it does in breakdown the deployment of the various forces in the Polish zone, by numbers and nationality. In all, the zone occupies some 80,000 square kilometers, with over 3 million inhabitants. The Poles themselves, aided by 500 Bulgarians, will watch over Babil and Karbala provinces; 1,700 Ukrainians and Kazaks (i.e. from Kazakstan) will be in Wasit province; and Qadisiya province, including the important Shiite holy city of Najaf, will be manned by 1,400 Spaniards aided by 350 soldiers from El Salvador, 300 from the Dominican Republic, 160 from Honduras, and around 100 Nicaraguans. (But this will be delayed; see below.) Finally, general logistical functions supporting these deployments will be provided by Romanians, Mongols, Hungarians, Latvians, Slovaks, Filipinos, and Lithuanians.

As I just mentioned, there’s going to be some delay in getting the Spanish and their Central American allies into Qadisiya province to replace the American forces there. And apparently this is not only because Najaf has been very tense of late – that was where the truck bomb exploded at the mosque last week, killing a leading a Shiite clerics along with many, many worshippers. The Spanish, it seems, are refusing to deploy there as scheduled because the Americans have been slow to provide promised equipment to the Central American contingents. The Spanish general who is going to be in charge there, one Alfredo Cardona, is rather angry about all of this; he has told the Spanish newspaper El Mundo of his displeasure that “the bilateral agreements over the forces which the Pentagon is obliged to provide” the Central American contingents are being ignored by the Americans. (Rzeczpospolita also mentions this dispute, and Genreal Cadorna’s quote, but less clearly; in Gazeta Wyborcza, on the other hand, mention is only made that things will go slower than planned in Qadasiya because they are waiting on the Central American troops to get up to scratch.)

Dziennik Polski is also willing to go into further detail about an uncomplimentary recent article about this multi-national force in the French newspaper Le Monde. According to Le Monde, the forces under Polish command are still struggling with organizational problems – in particular, with language problems. (The article speaks of these problems extending to issues of podzial sprzetu – division of equipment. Maybe that includes the squabble over the Central Americans in Qadasiya.) With twenty-one different nationalities, you can easily understand how this would be the case – but anyway, this is what justified the “Tower of Babel” reference in the article’s title.

Elsewhere, Rzeczpospolita adds some interesting details here and there in its coverage, in an article entitled Przywrocic Irak Irakijczykom, or “Return Iraq to the Iraqis.” For instance, it cites “unofficial” word that the Poles plan to be there, in all, for two years. Polish units will be rotated every six months – although extensions of tours to a full year might have to be invoked for operational reasons. On the lighter side, rehearsals for the transfer ceremony which Rzeczpospolita‘s reporter observed including practice by non-Polish participants in pronouncing the new Polish commander’s name, Tyszkiewicz. (It’s a fairly easy one: Tish-KYE-veech.) On the darker side, in remarks sent to the ceremony by Polish president Aleksander Kwasniewski, he included the warning “Soldiers taking part in such a mission accept the risk and must be prepared for it. Victims are calculated into this sort of activity.”

And Rzeczpospolita‘s account also mentions a convoy in the town of Mahmudija being fired upon, on the very day of the transfer ceremony. Actually, it was the convoy involved in bringing Polish journalists out to Camp Babil for the ceremony! (How many convoys are fired upon that the world never knows about, because journalists don’t happen to be present? . . .) Reportedly some American soldiers escorting that convoy were injured.

Turning to Gazeta Wyborcza, that newspaper distinguishes its coverage by noting the tight security, the general air of tension (helicopters patrolling overhead, etc.) surrounding the take-over ceremony. It also mentions, more briefly but to reinforce this impression of tension, that Polish journalists had to undergo that baptism of fire just to be able to cover the event. And Gazeta‘s coverage of the prayers offered by the departing and arriving chaplains I also find interesting:

American marine chaplain: “Help us, O God, to be not conquerors in this land, but builders.”
Polish chaplain: “Grant that we may never use our weapons in anger.”

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