WARSAW, Poland – President Aleksander Kwasniewski, a key U.S. ally, said Thursday that Poland was “misled” about whether Saddam Hussein ‘s regime had weapons of mass destruction and was considering withdrawing troops from Iraq several months early.
The remarks came as polls show about half of Poles are opposed to involvement in Iraq and after deadly bombings in Madrid — possibly by al-Qaida in retaliation for Spain’s alliance with the United States — triggered fears of a terror attack on Polish soil.
Kwasniewski’s comments were the first by a Polish leader to raise doubts about the intelligence behind the decision for going to war and the latest signs of a weakening of support for the war among coalition members. He tempered them by stressing that Poland is not about to abandon its mission in Iraq, and said Iraq was a better place without Saddam.
“But naturally I also feel uncomfortable due to the fact that we were misled with the information on weapons of mass destruction,” Kwasniewski told French reporters, according to a transcript released by his press office.
“This is the problem of the United States, of Britain and also of many other nations,” he later told a news conference.
Despite his comments, U.S. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said she did not think Poland was withdrawing its support for the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq.
“I talked to the Poles, and they think they were a bit misinterpreted here, because there’s been no stronger ally in this than the Poles,” Rice said in a CNN interview. She said President Bush and Kwasniewski had discussed the issue of Saddam’s alleged arsenal “and they went to war for the right reasons.”
Poland contributed 2,400 combat troops to the Iraq invasion and now commands a 9,500-strong multinational force, making it one of Washington’s staunchest allies. But while many Poles feel historically close to the United States, public support for the mission in Iraq has been tepid.
A poll last week found 42 percent of adults in favor and 53 percent opposed. The CBOS survey had a margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points.
Kwasniewski’s criticism of the prewar intelligence also puts him in line with widespread public sentiment in Western Europe, just before Poland joins the European Union on May 1.
“Poland so far lacked a necessary balance before the EU entry. It was too pro-American,” said Janina Paradowska, a commentator for the Polityka weekly. “Now is the time to have better European cooperation.”
State Department spokesman Adam Ereli, reacting to reports of Kwasniewski’s remarks, also said Washington does not believe Poland is wavering: “We have no reason to have any … questions or doubts about Poland’s steadfast support of the mission in Iraq.”
As early as November, a poll found 75 percent of Poles feared the country’s role in Iraq would lead to a terrorist attack at home.
“I don’t think the president’s remarks are linked only to the situation after Madrid, but in general … with the effects of involvement in Iraq, and with the fact that the public opinion is tired with our involvement,” Bronislaw Komorowski, a former defense minister, told The Associated Press.
Another reason for Kwasniewski’s blunt remarks may be Polish disappointment that wartime loyalty has not led to more Iraq reconstruction contracts and an easing of U.S. visa requirements for Poles — points Kwasniewski recently raised with Bush.
“Kwasniewski addressed his remarks to Washington, not to Warsaw,” said Zbigniew Lewicki, head of the American Studies Center at Warsaw University. “Kwasniewski was in Washington in January to demand a visa waiver and contracts … and came back with nothing.”
The Polish-led force in Iraq includes 1,300 troops from Spain, whose new government has said it wants to withdraw them by June 30 unless the United Nations takes control of peacekeeping.
Kwasniewski, speaking after a meeting of his top security officials to discuss Poland’s response to the Madrid bombings, said he will urge Spain to reconsider its decision.
Earlier Thursday, Kwasniewski said Poland may start withdrawing its troops from Iraq early next year, months before previously planned. He cited progress toward stabilizing Iraq.
“Everything suggests that pullout from Iraq may be possible after the stabilization mission is crowned with success and, in my assessment soon, it may be the start of 2005,” Kwasniewski told RMF.FM radio. Previously, Polish officials said they might start withdrawing troops in mid-2005.
Spain’s new government made its pullout threat shortly after winning elections Sunday, three days after the Madrid bombings.
Kwasniewski insisted that Poland — where security officials have acknowledged lacking experience in dealing with terrorist attacks — would not bow to terror.
“We are facing the same threat as Spain,” Kwasniewski said in the radio interview, but he stressed that “terrorism must be combatted, also with force.