Poles in Iraq VII: First Combat Casualty

Today it’s back to the Polish press again. You know that I seldom like to deal with the same national press two times in a row, but this time it is justified by a noteworthy milestone in our sporadic “Poles in Iraq” series: the first Polish soldier died in Iraq last Thursday. Actually, it was no mere soldier who was killed, but a Major Hieronim Kupczyk. As you can imagine, coverage in the main Polish papers is extensive.

That is to say, in Gazeta Wyborcza and Rzeczpospolita. I honestly do try to broaden my coverage of the Polish press to include other publications than those two, but consistently fail to find coverage worth reporting on issues that I’m interested in. For example, here is the report of Maj. Kupczyk’s funeral in the Krak√≥w-based Dziennik Polski, but it essentially reports merely that the funeral was held, notable figures spoke at it (e.g. General Tyszkiewicz, commanding the Polish-run multinational division), the Iraqi police and other national contingents contributed guards of honor, everyone was sad, etc.

Rzeczpospolita did a rather more-complete job in its Friday edition, here, complete with a recent photo of Maj. Kupczyk up top, clearly in Iraq, under camouflage netting and in his Polish-style desert uniform.

There’s also a fantastic map – clickable to enlarge – showing the Polish sector and exactly where the attack which killed Maj. Kupczyk happened, which, by its graphic nature, will also be informative to non-Polish-speakers.

Maj. Kupczyk was returning with fifteen other soldiers from graduation ceremonies at the US Army camp “Dogwood” for new members of the Iraqi Civil Protection Corps when their convoy came under fire near the city of Al-Musaib. Maj. Kupczyk was hit in the neck; none of the other Polish soldiers sustained any injuries. Although the convoy was immediately diverted to the field hospital at Karbala, the major died of his injuries there a few hours later. It’s clear that the losses could have been even worse, a fact noted in an interview by General Stanislaw Koziej, commanding the Polish contingent of that multi-national division. In any case, Gen. Koziej fully expects things to get worse generally within the Polish sector, as the military there is observing increased activity on the part of organized partisan bands. There is also an increasing radicalization of the local Shiite religious authorities, with hostile factions attacking each other. Maj. Kupczyk may be the first, but will by means be the last Polish casualty, the general declares – and of course he is correct, although at the same time he is clearly “massaging” domestic public opinion to prepare it for this eventuality.

On the same web-page you find other related treatment of the facts surrounding Maj. Kupczyk’s death. There are the reactions solicited back in Szczecin from family members of other troops belonging to his division – “We’re shocked.” There is an interesting graphic, down further below, showing the fluctuating level of support over time from among the Polish population for the deployment in Iraq (also clickable to enlarge); noteworthy is that at no time during the depicted time-period (since last July) is the green line (“I support”) ever over the red (“I do not support”). The former fluctuates between 30% and 40%, while the latter is always above 50%. (The polls were conducted not by Rzeczpospolita itself, but by the Public Opinion Research Center.)

Let’s check out the comments recorded, on this same web-page, by Polish notables. Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski: “This is one of the most difficult moments of my life. . . . but nothing will change in our strategy. This is war and we must be prepared for such news.” Roman Giertych, vice-chief of the LPR (League of Polish Families, an opposition party): “The question arises of the political responsibility of those who made the decision about the participation of Polish soldiers in armed operations against Iraq. . . . This is not a matter of a stabilization mission on the basis of a UN Security Council decision. It’s a matter of a symbolic participation, which puts Poland in the ranks of states participating in war. The president earlier took that decision himself . . . without the participation of parliament. He now has to apologize to the relatives of Maj. Kupczyk and to our entire society for his mistaken decision.”

Finally, commentary at the very bottom from Rzeczpospolita writer Krzysztof Gottesman. It had to happen sooner or later. Iraq is a dangerous place, and those soldiers knew, and know, what they are getting themselves into. Many Poles – in fact, more than half – oppose the military presence in Iraq, and this death will only reinforce their views. Yet those Polish soldiers are there in the first place as the result of a political decision, a decision to stand in solidarity with America, dating back to September 11, 2001. Maj. Kupczyk’s death should not weaken, but rather strengthen, that solidarity.

Gazeta Wyborcza has its main coverage of Maj. Kupczyk’s death here, complete with that same picture of him in his desert fatigues, and with links over on the right side of the page to numerous related articles. The main contributions Gazeta’s coverage makes here is that there had been an almost-identical incident (i.e convoy fired upon, at that spot on the road near Al-Musaib) a week previously – and that of yet another click-to-enlarge map, which diagrams in very interesting detail the composition of the Polish convoy and where it traveled.

I’d like to go instead here to a couple of those side articles. Piatas: We will draw conclusions from the soldier’s death: At a press conference, the chief of the Polish general staff, General Czeslaw Piatas, spoke of changes in the way Polish troops would conduct operations in Iraq arising from the circumstances surrounding Maj. Kupczyk’s death. The changes mainly have to do with providing heavier weapons, with a longer range, to such convoys, and increasing their supporting fire, including at night (although, strangely, the incident in which the major was killed occurred in the middle of the day). Also, there would be more military support accompanying such convoys from Iraqi contingents. This article also reveals that 49 Polish soldiers had died in Iraq previously, but all of those due to accidents or sickness.

And then there is the reaction of Andrzej Lepper, head of Self-Defense, a party in the extreme opposition, known for disrupting both the Sejm (Polish parliament) with his outbursts and Polish streets and highways with demonstrations of his party members. In a statement on Friday, he blamed the president, the prime minister, and the opposition for Maj. Kupczyk’s death. “Self-Defense was from the very beginning against the dispatch of Polish soldiers to Iraq. We knew what would happen, and today it is with regret that we confirm that.” Lepper called for the immediate withdrawal of Polish troops from Iraq, drawing a parallel between that country and the American experience in Vietnam.

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