Coalition partners pull out from Iraq

The US coalition in Iraq saw its size dwindle today as Ukraine and Bulgaria said all of their troops had left the country while Poland said it would remain, but reduce its number of troops by 600 next year.

The Polish government’s decision, which must be approved by President Lech Kaczynski, would be a boost for US President George W Bush, who has faced withering criticism at home and abroad ovr his handling of the Iraq war and the growing insurgency there.

Polish Prime Minister Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz said keeping troops there longer would support “the growing democratisation of life” in Iraq after the country’s constitutional referendum and parliamentary elections.

“We would like to gradually carry the pull out of Polish troops from Iraq, not in an abrupt way, but gradually,” he said in Warsaw.

“Stabilisation is taking place. The high turn out in the October referendum and a still higher turnout in the elections on December 15 – all this suggests that within two or three months there will be a government of national unity in place created by all the political forces in Iraq.”

Marcinkiewicz conceded it was “a very difficult decision.” The deployment, which has cost the lives of 17 Polish soldiers, is unpopular with the public.

Kaczynski, who took office last week, has until the end of the month to decide. As the armed forces’ commander in chief, the president approves overseas military deployments.

His approval, however, was considered largely a formality due to his closeness to Marcinkiewicz’ government. Kaczynski is a leading member of the prime minister’s conservative party, Law and Justice, while the party’s chairman is his twin brother, Jaroslaw Kaczynski.

Ukraine and Bulgaria, which had troops serving in Iraq under Polish command, both announced that they had completed the withdrawal of their forces from Iraq.

Poland’s own troop levels would be cut to 900 from about 1,500 in March, said the deputy defence minister Gen Stanislaw Koziej. The soldiers will focus on advising and training Iraqi security forces, he added.

Marcinkiewicz said the decision also came upon appeals from US leaders, and considering the United Nations Security Council’s extension last summer of its mission in Iraq.

Ukraine’s defence ministry said that its last troops had left Iraq, fulfilling a long-planned withdrawal pledged by President Viktor Yushchenko.

A column of eight armoured personnel carriers and 44 soldiers had left the country and arrived in Kuwait, the statement said. Ukraine had kept 867 soldiers in Iraq after partial pull outs earlier this year. By Friday, all are due back in Ukraine, where the deployment has been unpopular.

About 50 Ukrainian military instructors will stay on to train Iraqi forces.

Ukraine opposed the invasion of Iraq but later contributed 1,650 troops to the US-led coalition, becoming one of the largest non-NATO participants. Eighteen Ukrainian soldiers have been killed and another 32 wounded.

In Bulgaria, Defence Minister Veselin Bliznakov said that his country had completed its own military pull out from Iraq.

Bulgaria began withdrawing its troops from the city of Diwaniya shortly after Iraq’s parliamentary elections, transferring its military responsibilities to Iraqi forces.

Bliznakov has said that Bulgaria will “most likely” continue its military involvement in Iraq next year by contributing a 120-strong non-combat unit tasked with guarding the Ashraf refugee camp.

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