WASHINGTON, May 23 (UPI) -- Envoys from about 15 countries met in an old fort in Poland for two days this week to put together a multinational peacekeeping force that will join U.S. and British troops in bringing law, order, stability and -- eventually -- democracy to Iraq.
Polish officials gave out very little information about the Thursday - Friday meeting. A Polish military spokesman even refused to divulge the exact number of participants. But NATO headquarters cleared the mystery Thursday with the announcement that NATO had agreed to provide technical assistance in the form of intelligence sharing and communications for a Polish-led force.
Encouraged by the Bush administration, the Polish government hopes to build a 7,000-strong unit around a nucleus of 2,000 Polish troops for deployment next month in southern Iraq. Warsaw officials were circumspect in approaching the Atlantic alliance, fearing that divisions among the NATO 19 member states over Iraq might lead to a blank refusal.
But then came Thursday's strong vote in the U.N. Security Council doing away with the Iraq sanctions and endorsing the U.S-led administration of "liberated" Iraq.
NATO members France and Germany, the arch opponents of the Iraq war, buried the hatchet long enough to vote for the Washington motion. After that, the way was open for NATO's involvement in Iraq peacekeeping.
Analysts don't believe that the Bush administration would be any more willing to give the alliance a major role in Iraq any more than it is prepared to do the same for the United Nations. They consider the creation of an official NATO peacekeeping force to take over the roles of the United States and Britain as highly improbable. But NATO-supported contingents will ease the growing burden on U.S. and British occupation forces.
Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, appearing before a congressional committee Friday, refused to be pinned down on either an exact number of U.S. troops that would be required to gain full control in Baghdad, or a target date when the United States would be clear of its military commitment in Iraq.
But Wolfowitz clearly agreed with questioning senators that U.S. troops were destined to be there for years, not months, and the U.S. forces deployed in Iraq's unruly capital needed to be increased to stop the looting, robberies and paramilitary attacks.
According to U.S. Army Gen. Peter Pace, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, there are 145,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, mostly in Baghdad, and an additional 18,000 are on the way in the shape of the 1st Armored Division.
Senior British officers had offered to shift Britain's elite 16th Air Assault Brigade to Baghdad as further help. The British troops would be used mainly to train the newly formed Iraqi police force and accompany the police officers on patrol.
But British officials in London scotched the proposal, essentially overruling the British commanders in Iraq, and the reversal is likely to stick.
According to reports Friday, senior Whitehall officials advised Defense Minister Geoffrey Hoon that the Air Assault Brigade needed to return home. Extending their stay in Iraq could cause a drop in morale.
Western analysts expect that, following the U.N. vote, and with NATO's involvement to formalize the operation, other countries will be willing to volunteer troops for Iraq, or to increase the forces they have already committed.
Italy has dispatched a force of 3,000 men, mainly Carabinieri, the Italian military police -- to support the British in the Basra area. But the left-wing opposition questioned the legality of sending the troops, and insisted on reducing the size of the force before voting its approval on April 15.
Also, there are now 2,000 Spanish troops virtually running the southern Iraqi town of Umm Kasr. But the transport carrying the Spanish force to the gulf was held up in the Suez Canal while Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar -- one of President George W. Bush's leading supporters -- won over objections even within his own center-right Popular Party to deploying Spanish soldiers without a NATO or EU umbrella.