View Full Version : U.S. Marines hand over Iraq zone to Polish-led force

09-03-03, 01:25 PM
U.S. Marines hand over Iraq zone to Polish-led force

By Andrew Gray

BABYLON, Iraq (Reuters) - U.S. Marines handed responsibility for a swathe of central Iraq to a Polish-led multinational force on Wednesday in a ceremony that recalled the country's history and may offer a pointer to the future.

The handover, in a restored amphitheatre of dusty pale yellow bricks at the site of ancient Babylon, took place as Washington intensified efforts to get more countries involved in its mission to stamp out the violence plaguing postwar Iraq.

A U.S. military band played and troops from as far apart as Honduras and Hungary sat in the morning sunshine as the force of around 9,000 soldiers assumed control of an area south of Baghdad stretching east as far as the Iranian border.

Keen to show they are not going it alone in Iraq, U.S. officials stress 21 countries make up the new Multinational Division, although some are providing only a small number of troops. Poland, Ukraine and Spain are the biggest contributors.

Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, the commander of the U.S.-dominated task force in Iraq, made clear he would welcome more soldiers from other countries. He said the multinational nature of the new division already sent out a strong message.

"The message is that the international community is committed to the country of Iraq, to its people and to the world -- to never allow the Saddam Hussein regime to return and to bring peace and stability to this country and this region," he said.

The zone the Marines took over a few weeks after the end of the war that ousted Saddam in April was relatively peaceful until last Friday, when a car bomb exploded in the city of Najaf, killing a top Shi'ite cleric and more than 80 of his followers.

Sanchez has delayed handing over that part of the zone to Spanish and central American troops under the Poles' command for at least a couple of weeks as tensions are high and some of the central Americans are still waiting for equipment.


The new mission is a key moment for Poland, taking on its highest profile military mission since World War Two as it seeks to establish itself as a heavyweight in international affairs.

"We are greatly honoured to be able to help the Iraqi people," said Major General Andrzej Tyszkiewicz, the division's commander.

He told Iraqis, including sheikhs in traditional Arab headdress at the ceremony, that his troops would respect them.

"We do not want to impose on your way of life," he said. "Our presence is only supposed to assist your return to normality, to a life without fear of your future."

The Polish presence is already visible at the Camp Babylon headquarters, next to the site of the ancient civilisation on the outskirts of the city of Hilla, 100 km south of Baghdad. Signs at the gate are in both Polish and English.

Officers acknowledge communication is a potential problem for a force with soldiers from so many nations.

The fact they are located near the site of the tower of Babel, never finished according to the Bible because God confused the languages of the workers, will not be lost on some.

"We'll have some challenges but we've trained very hard," Sanchez said. "They have demonstrated clearly that they are capable of working their way through those challenges."

The ceremony gave a taste of the difficulties. The Iraqi governor of Babel province gave a speech in Arabic, which was followed by a translation -- in Polish only. U.S. troops applauded politely although they had no idea what had been said.