Poland's government says to keep troops in Iraq until end-2006

Poland's government said on Tuesday it would keep its troops in Iraq until the end of 2006, longer than earlier planned, reaffirming its backing for the United States despite growing opposition at home. The previous leftist government, which stood up to European Union heavyweights Germany and France by firmly supporting the U.S.-led war in Iraq, planned to pull troops out in early 2006 after gradually reducing its forces in the course of this year.

"The government decided to ask the president to extend the deployment of Polish military forces as part of the international forces in Iraq from Jan. 1, 2006 until Dec. 31, 2006," Prime Minister Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz told a news conference.

"This is a very difficult decision, but we take into consideration the fact that the mandate of U.N. stabilisation forces has been extended to the whole of 2006 and, secondly, strong requests of Iraqi authorities that we stay there," he said.

Deputy Defence Minister Stanislaw Koziej told the news conference Poland's military force in Iraq would be reduced to 900 in March 2006. He said the focus of Poland's presence would also shift towards the training of Iraqi forces. Poland has 1,500 troops in south-central Iraq, the fifth biggest contingent after the United States, Britain, South Korea and Italy.

Warsaw's decision is a boost for President George W. Bush, who has cited Poland as a key member of the "coalition of the willing" in the face of criticism at home over the rising toll and costs of the war and dwindling international forces in Iraq.

U.S. military allies such as Bulgaria, Hungary and Ukraine, whose troops were part of the Polish-led multinational division in south-central Iraq, have already decided to pull out.

Tuesday's decision, however, leaves Poland's ruling conservatives the only party to support the further military presence in Iraq which was opposed by other mainstream parties that had backed the troop deployment in 2003 but sought a pull-out by early 2006, reports the AP. I.L.

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