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After Madrid attacks, Poland expects worst

by Thomas Fuller Saturday, Mar. 20, 2004 at 5:32 PM

The Madrid attacks have emboldened Polish critics of the war and have put an already fragile government, which has a 9 percent approval rating, on the defensive over its Iraq policy.

Spy chief warns country is 'real target'
The International Herald Tribune, March 20, 2004

WARSAW The head of Poland's intelligence agency, Zbigniew Siemiatkowski, had a sharp message for his countrymen in the wake of the Madrid bombings.

"As a society, as citizens, as normal people we do not take into consideration that we can go out to a bar and be blown into pieces along with that bar," he told a local radio station, Radio Zet, a few days after the deadly attacks in Spain.

"We are not only a hypothetical target but perhaps a real one," Siemiatkowski said.

Madrid and Warsaw are separated by half of a continent, but the bombings in Spain continue to reverberate here in politics and on the street.

Terrorism was once something that Poles read about in newspaper dispatches from far-away places. The country has no history of domestic terrorism, relatively few foreigners live here, and during the decades of Communism the Iron Curtain sealed off Poland from the threat of violent groups in Western Europe like the Red Brigades, ETA or the Irish Republican Army.

Today, with the fourth-largest foreign military contingent in Iraq, Poles are weighing the costs of their friendship with the United States, wondering if Poland will pay the same price as Spain. The reverberations have traveled to the top of the political ladder.

On Friday, Poland's president, Aleksander Kwasniewski, assured President George W. Bush that Polish troops would remain in Iraq "as long as needed, plus one day longer," according to Kwasniewski's national security adviser.

Only a day earlier, the president had told a Polish radio station that the troops might start withdrawing a few months earlier than the previously established time of mid-2005, and he had told foreign journalists that while he supported the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, he had been "deceived" about information on weapons of mass destruction.

With the war, the threat of terrorism is now a local news story.

The Madrid attacks have emboldened Polish critics of the war and have put an already fragile government, which has a 9 percent approval rating, on the defensive over its Iraq policy.

And all of this comes during what should have been a time of rejoicing for Poland, six weeks before the country joins the European Union.

With nearly 40 million people, Poland is by far the largest country entering the Union in May. But it is also one of the more troubled new members.

The government is juggling a weak economy, including an unemployment rate of 20.6 percent, with the pressing concerns of internal security and future policies in Iraq.

Opposition politicians say the events in Madrid, as well as the likely decision by the incoming Spanish government to pull its troops out of Iraq, justify their opposition to the war.

"It has been our opinion for a long time that this was not our war," said Andrzej Lepper, head of the Self-Defense League, a populist opposition party in Parliament that was supported by about 20 percent of voters in recent opinion polls. "We should pull out as soon as possible."

Opinion polls show sagging support for Poland's troop presence in Iraq, and the Madrid attacks will probably decrease such support, according to Tomasz Zukowski, a sociologist at the University of Warsaw.

A Warsaw newspaper, Zycie Warszawy, published an article Thursday about Poles who changed their commuting habits after the Madrid attacks. The paper quoted an 18-year-old woman, Marta Siennicka, who said her parents had barred her from taking the Warsaw subway system.

"After Spain, it's time for us," Siennicka said.

Until last week, Spain was seen as a special partner for Poland because both countries stood up to 23 other nations in December and scuttled a deal on Europe's draft constitution. Both countries are also involved in Iraq.

But after the upset victory of the Socialist Party last weekend, Spain is changing its tune on both issues, and some people in Poland are raising questions, too.

Wieslaw Szymanski-Santos, a 22-year-old student in hotel management who was skateboarding in a central Warsaw square on Friday, said Poland expected more "recognition" for its help in Iraq.

"I don't like the way the Americans have treated us," Szymanski-Santos said. "We were supposed to get visas and free access to the States, but we didn't get anything out of it."

The same view holds among Poles who say they were, and are still, strong supporters of the war.

Tadeusz Bialy, a 51-year-old stock-market investor, praised Bush for "doing the dirty job for all of us." He added, "In my name he is fighting to keep the world safe."

But he added that he was "a bit disappointed that Bush -- Americans -- do not appreciate our determination to cooperate with them."

Marek Slowik, a taxi driver waiting for a fare in central Warsaw, said that some passengers talk about being more fearful of terrorist attacks. But many don't seem to be, he said.

"When something blows up, then they will fear it," he said.
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