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Poles Apart in Iraq

A Polish platoon works diligently to investigate bombings, but intelligence is hard to find if you're a new arrival in a foreign land.

October 03, 2003|David Holley | Times Staff Writer

MUSAYYIB, Iraq — Sitting on once-elegant furniture with cushions missing and embroidered trimmings torn, Iraqi police poured out their frustrations in a midnight chat with 2nd Lt. Michal Smolen of the Polish army.

The officers wanted help: police cars and radios to replace those stolen by looters, beds for officers on overnight call, repairs to the station in this central Iraqi city. The list went on, and they saw Smolen, the leader of a Polish platoon on night patrol, as their best link to U.S. authorities.

Smolen, 25, listened sympathetically, then counseled patience. "In Poland, we started a new country in 1990, and people thought everything would be good just like that," he said, snapping his fingers. "But it's 13 years now, and there are still many problems."

As Iraq embarks on its own thorny path of reconstruction, Washington's hopes of attracting more foreign troops to help stabilize the country depend in part on how successfully Smolen and others in a new Polish-led multinational force cope with the challenges they encounter.

The 21-nation division -- with 8,200 soldiers and 400 more expected soon -- took control last month of five provinces across south-central Iraq, a predominantly Shiite Muslim area where many people hated Saddam Hussein and are now intensely pro-American.

The Poles bring their own strengths to the enterprise, including the experience of their transition from communist dictatorship to free-market democracy -- to most Poles, a painful process but worth the price.

Still, like other foreign troops, Smolen and his men have been thrown into a complex situation they cannot hope to fathom immediately.

The risk from guerrilla attacks by Hussein's backers is lower than in the Sunni Triangle west and north of Baghdad, but soldiers on night patrol still must feel their way through a murky and mystifying world.

Smolen sees schmoozing with the local police as a means of sorting things out.

"If they will be my friends, they will tell me what is going on, for sure," he said.

This night's patrol began with Smolen and his platoon of 20 soldiers jumping into five open trucks at their base, an old pistol factory in Musayyib, 40 miles south of Baghdad. They speeded along highways lined with date palms and soon reached the police station.

Smolen and the officers, who had met several times before, chatted casually through an interpreter in the station's shabby office.

Smolen asked about the upcoming religious holiday, Ramadan. Soon, the talk turned to whether he was married, which he was, and whether he had children, which he didn't.

After a 23-year-old Iraqi officer bragged that he had two children, the banter turned to Muslim law, which allows men to take more than one wife.

"You can become a Muslim and have four wives," a policeman told Smolen.

"In Poland, you couldn't afford it," Smolen replied.

Such bridge-building is important for the multinational troops, who are trying to establish bonds with Iraqis. In contrast to other parts of the country, in this area U.S. soldiers made a good impression on the locals.

By comparison, the newcomers are seen as cold, distant and too quick to point their guns at people's heads.

"Everybody is saying that the Americans are much better than the Poles. People are thinking that they are like terrorists. They always raise the guns in our faces," said Jasim Kadhum Hamza, a marketplace worker in Musayyib, a dirt-poor city with the feel of a dusty village.

But the Americans were like that at first too, and the Poles will learn to appear less aggressive, one local policeman said. "It's natural," he explained. "They're new."

Smolen agreed. "We are very fresh. Fresh meat. So we behave like that sometimes."

Despite such first impressions, there has been little violence directed at the multinational troops.

The division is headquartered in a compound Hussein built next to the ruins of ancient Babylon, just below a hill where one of his many palaces stands. In addition to patrolling, the troops guard fuel convoys, recruit men for the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps, disburse funds for small-scale reconstruction projects and provide technical experts to upgrade power plants and other services.

"The most important thing from my point of view is to 'keep the night' -- to know what is going on at night," said Lt. Col. Zenon Szczybylo, commander of the multinational division's 1st Battle Group, a unit of 440 Polish, Latvian and Lithuanian soldiers that includes Smolen's platoon. "So we have more patrols at night than in the day. During the day it is quite calm. During the night there is more shooting, more thieves, more action."

After this night's police- station schmooze session, the Iraqis and Poles set out on a joint patrol, a police vehicle leading the way and the soldiers following in their open trucks.

With fingers on the triggers of semiautomatic rifles, the Poles worked their way down dusty, unpaved streets where the stench of sewage and poverty floated on the breeze.

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