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Poles 'Misled' on Iraq, President Says

The U.S. war ally voices criticism of prewar assessments on weapons. South Korea balks at deploying 3,000 troops to the city of Kirkuk.

March 19, 2004|Paul Richter | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — In an unusual public criticism by one of the United States' staunchest allies, the president of Poland said Thursday that he had been "misled" about Iraq's alleged stocks of banned weapons before the war.

Speaking to reporters in Warsaw, President Aleksander Kwasniewski said that Iraq "without Saddam Hussein is truly better than Iraq with Saddam Hussein," but observed that "naturally, I also feel uncomfortable, due to the fact that we were misled with the information on weapons of mass destruction."

His comments, provided in a government transcript, came amid growing anxiety among a number of key U.S. allies four days after Spanish voters tossed out the government that had sent troops to Iraq.

Among governments in Europe that supported the war, "there's a rush for the exits," said Radek Sikorski, a former deputy foreign minister of Poland now at the American Enterprise Institute think tank in Washington. He predicted that politicians' concern about the Spanish election would drive many governments that have sided with the U.S. on Iraq to align themselves more closely with France and Germany, which had opposed the war. Other analysts have said such pressure may particularly be at play in Italy and Romania.

In an interview Thursday on PBS' "NewsHour with Jim Lehrer," Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz responded sharply to Kwasniewski's comments.

"I don't think he has a right to say they were misled," Wolfowitz said. There were intelligence failures in Iraq, Wolfowitz acknowledged, but "nobody was misleading anybody.... When somebody tells you their best estimate of a situation and it turns out to be wrong ... that's life."

Meanwhile, in another blow to the U.S. effort in Iraq, South Korea said today that it would not send 3,000 troops to the northern city of Kirkuk as planned and would look to place them in a safer city.

"Our objective in sending troops is to assist in the rebuilding of Iraq, not to get involved in aggressive actions such as the crackdown on terrorist groups," said a South Korean official, who asked not to be quoted by name.

The official said the main reason was the deteriorating security situation in Kirkuk. He conceded, however, that last week's bombing in Madrid, which killed 202 people and may have been conducted by Islamic terrorists retaliating for Spain's support of the Iraq war, might have had an "indirect effect" on the decision.

South Korean military officials said they informed the U.S. a few days ago of the change, which is expected to delay the deployment, scheduled to begin in April. The Pentagon had no official response to the decision, but one Defense official who spoke on condition of anonymity said it was up to each nation to decide "what type, duration and scope of support" it would offer.

As for Poland, Warsaw now has 2,400 troops leading an international force of 9,600, including the Spaniards, that patrols a region of south-central Iraq.

Administration officials insisted Thursday that they did not believe Poland's support was in doubt. Condoleezza Rice, Bush's national security advisor, said on CNN that "there's been no stronger ally than the Poles."

But another U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that if Kwasniewski had been quoted correctly, "it would be huge; it would be damaging. They've really been our best buddies through all of this."

In a meeting with Bush in January, Kwasniewski praised the president as a friend and said relations between the countries should be "as excellent as possible." Yet a survey last week by the CBOS polling organization in Poland found 42% of adults in favor of the current mission in Iraq, and 53% opposed.

In his comments, Kwasniewski said Poland might start withdrawing troops from Iraq early next year. An official at the Polish Embassy in Washington said Polish officials had said that troops could be pulled out in early 2005 if the mission is accomplished. But in the past, Polish officials said their troops might remain until mid-2005.

The official said Poland did not intend to retreat from its commitment in Iraq.

European allies' position on the war began to undergo review Sunday, when Spanish voters spurned the Popular Party of Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar and handed power to the Socialists, led by Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, a staunch opponent of the war.

The vote was thought to reflect both the Spanish public's opposition to the war and its anger with the government's handling of the train bombings.

On Monday, Zapatero announced his plan to withdraw Spain's 1,300 troops by the end of June. A day later, Bush failed to persuade the prime minister of the Netherlands to extend Dutch troops' tour in Iraq beyond their commitment, which lasts until midyear.

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