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Polish president says he was misled on Iraq, mulls early withdrawal

BERLIN—One week after the Madrid bombings, President Bush looks to be losing his grip on another pivotal ally in the Iraq war.

Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski on Thursday told a gathering of European journalists that he had been misled on the threat of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.

He also said he was considering an early pullout of many of the 2,500 Polish troops in Iraq as part of the coalition, but he said it was only because the situation in Iraq was improving.

While Kwasniewski didn't connect being misled to the possible early pullout and didn't cite the vivid memories of Madrid among his reasons, experts agree that his announcement was damaging to Bush. It added to evidence that Europe was departing further from the Bush administration's strategic vision of the war on terror.

Kwasniewski's announcement came days after incoming Spanish President Jose Luis Zapatero declared the war in Iraq a "disaster" and said he would pull his country's troops out of Iraq by June 30.

In an interview appearing Friday in the French newspaper Le Monde, French Foreign Minister M. Dominique de Villepin echoed Zapatero's statement, saying that the war in Iraq had not led to a more stable world.

"Let's stick to the facts: Terrorism didn't exist in Iraq before the war. Today, that country is one of the main centers of terrorism worldwide," Villepin said. "We're witnessing increasing violence, against the coalition forces, against the Iraqis themselves. ... The terrorism is affecting us all; the threat is today omnipresent. The Madrid tragedy clearly shows that Europe isn't spared."

Kwasniewski reaffirmed that. "Terrorism must be combated, also, with force," he said.

Yet terrorism and foreign policy experts saw little positive news in these statements for the United States, in particular, but also for Europe because they gave the appearance that Europe was retreating under the pressure of terrorism.

The statement came a week after 202 died and 1,500 were wounded as 10 bombs exploded at three Madrid train stations during the morning commute. In the days since, evidence has linked al-Qaida to the bombings, including a letter in which the bombings are said to be retribution for Spain's involvement in the war. Another letter asks who will be next.

"This is terrible news for the Bush administration," said Philip Gordon, of the Brookings Institution, the Washington-based policy research organization. "It's also terrible news for those who make the argument that terrorism doesn't get results."

He added that Bush had made the case that while he was at odds with Old Europe about Iraq, he had the full backing of up-and-coming visionary leaders in Spain and Poland. To lose one and be harshly criticized by another in one week is a sign that foreign policy isn't going well.

"It's certainly evidence that this is not a very comfortable time to be a friend of the United States," Gordon added.

In Poland, Kwasniewski said that while he thought Saddam Hussein's fall in Iraq was overall a positive, he's "uncomfortable due to the fact that we were misled with the information on weapons of mass destruction."

Zapatero had been promising throughout the election campaign to remove Spanish troops from Iraq. The war had been hugely unpopular in Spain, opposed by as much as 90 percent of the people.

Magnus Ranstorp, director of the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St. Andrews, in Scotland, said it all looks bad.

"The devil is in the symbolism, not the politics," he said. "Those who spread fear have just heard a loud and clear message: Terror works, fear works. These actions show that national policy can be shaped by the perpetration of such acts, and that will have long-term consequences, for all of Europe."


(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Kwasniewski