Poles in Iraq VIII: “A Difficult Week”

It’s time to resuscitate the long-dormant “Poles in Iraq” series, dealing as it does with coverage in the Polish press of what’s happening with that contingent of Polish soldiers sent to perform occupation duty – indeed, to command a sector – in support of Coalition forces. And you probably can figure out why now is a good time to bring “Poles in Iraq” back to life: the country is in an uproar, or at least the central “Sunni triangle” is (which has already been in at least a state of simmering rebellion since the war) as well as the heretofore quiet Shiite-dominated south, which is exactly where the Poles command their very multi-national occupation force, because it was considered a safe part of the country back when the occupations were drawn up.

Now that is no longer true, what with the uprising lead by the young Shiite cleric as-Sadr and his “Mahdi Army,” which is still in control of parts of a number of southern cities. I was looking for a good account of all of this in the Polish press, one that didn’t just repeat the general news reports about what was currently happening but that also included some Polish angle for the local readers. There was coverage, of course, but coverage that didn’t really meet this criterion, in Gazeta Wyborcza (generally) and in Dziennik Polski (Calm Before the Storm?), but the series of articles on one webpage published by Rzeczpospolita (starting at the top with Every Day a Kidnapping) was better.

That top article basically gives the current kidnapping “score”: eleven Russians (working for a Russian oil firm) taken hostage, along with three Czech journalists; but the seven (Communist) Chinese previously seized were released.

(Side editorial note: News reports I’ve heard on the radio – Flemish news reports, as it happens – expressed wonder at the Chinese being seized, since of course the PRC long opposed the US invasion of Iraq. But it shouldn’t be any surprise: those areas of Iraq are descending into lawless anarchy – temporarily, we hope, until the Marines can once again set things right – and there are plenty of wild men with guns running around who have never heard of the PRC and couldn’t find China on a map. If people you run across look foreign and don’t understand Arabic, well then they must be “Western” (how ironic for the Chinese, eh?) – grab them! They’re surely “unbelievers” in any case, and naturally all of this violence is being carried out under the banner of “Holy War” – jihad! For all the talk of the “Mahdi Army,” most of this trouble is likely sheerly “freelance,” i.e. some young guys getting the guns out, hitting the streets, and thinking up some crazy name to give themselves in case the press ever dare to approach close enough to start asking questions – or in case they do seize hostages and so get the privilege of communicating demands.)


More informative is the following article, entitled “That Was A Difficult Week.” (The title comes from part of the text of a statement from President Bush quoted here, which was followed by the usual “My thoughts and prayers are with those who pay the highest price for our freedom.”) It reports that things are back to relative quiet in the Polish sector – which includes the Shiite holy cities of Nadzaf and Karabala – mainly because a cease-fire agreed between the Americans and the rebellious Shiites for last Saturday is holding. It was not agreed to directly between these two parties, because the American forces are determined not to negotiate directly with their opponents; rather, the Governing Council is serving as mediator, together with moderate Shiite leaders. General Mieczyslaw Bieniek is in charge of that Polish sector, and he tells reporters that the next few days will be crucial for how things ultimately develop; if the situation can avoid blowing up again during that period, all could be well. If not, then in the words of American deputy commander General Mark Kimmitt, the Marines “are ready for the final contest with the Iraqi rebels.”

Apart from this sheer reporting, though, I’ve also been searching the on-line Polish press for some sort of commentary on the Iraq situation as it pertains to the Polish troops: basically “Pull them out!” or else “Keep them there!” In this line a guest editorial piece published over the weekend by Rzeczpospolita is interesting (In Defense of the Weak). It is in interview form – although there is only one question, namely “What is the sense and objective of the presence of Polish troops overseas?” – and because the interview subject is Major Marek Strzelecki, an army chaplain with the Polish forces over in Iraq, you can be sure that the general sense conveyed is “Keep them there!”

Interestingly, the first paragraph of Father Strzelecki’s response is all doom and gloom: There’s no hope that the Shiites and Sunnis will ever come to an agreement, they haven’t been able to do so for hundreds of years. (Ironically, this article from the New York Times (registration required) suggests that Sunni and Shiite are indeed uniting to fight against the Americans.) And it’s further hard to imagine the Kurds ever being granted any place at all within an Iraqi government. “In any case we’re not counting on any fast change for the better.” Ultimately, Father Strzelecki maintains, the improvements outsiders are trying to bring to Iraq are running up against “the hermetic Arab civilization,” which has strong roots in tribe and family, does not know tolerance, and is suspicious of anything that is new and progressive.


So why are we here? he asks rhetorically. What are we doing? Father Strzelecki takes as his theme the (then) upcoming Easter holidays: Christ died on the cross for all sinners and for the weak in particular, and in the same vein Polish forces are now in Iraq to protect tych najslabszych i uciskanych, dreczonych i przesladowanych: that is, “the weak and the oppressed, the tormented and the persecuted.” Because even though the war is officially over, it really goes on: attacks and death wait around every corner. But the soldiers of the independent paratroop group that I’m attached to can handle it.

Father Strzelecki even goes into this interesting territory: The Fifth Commandment after all decrees “Thou shalt not kill.” Is this a dilemma for Polish soldiers? Not at all; for the soldier, says the Polish army chaplain, that commandment transmutes into “Have respect in war for your opponent.” Soldiers not only have the moral right, but also the obligation, to defend the unarmed and the weak, the innocent and the suffering.

So there you have it. Poland has often called itself the “Christ Among Nations” for the suffering it has had to undergo over the centuries – mainly its erasure from the map of Europe at the hands of its neighbors from the late 18th century to the early 20th century, but also from its travails at the hands of the Germans in World War II. Now it has a divine mission in Iraq to which it must hold – or at least it does in the view of this Army chaplain.

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