Sun, Sep 28, 2003 - Page 7 News List

`New Europe' troops face teething troubles in Iraq


First the good news: The nations making up the Polish-led force which has taken control of a belt of central and southern Iraq have suffered no combat casualties.

Now the bad news: Ukrainian and Bulgarian soldiers have been wounded in barrack-room shootings, Poles have been sent home for drunkenness and Bulgaria's contingent wants more danger money.

Reports reaching the home front of problems with discipline, equipment and pay are raising questions over whether America's "New Europe" allies who make up much of the 9,000-strong, 23-nation force are up to the job.

Defense officials argue that, barely a month into their mission to stabilize the mainly Shiite region of 5 million, the eastern Europeans have overcome teething troubles and are rooting out misconduct.

"There is no serious problem," Polish defense ministry spokesman Eugeniusz Mleczak said on Friday. "The fact that we are eliminating such cases shows discipline is very good."

Five soldiers from Poland's 2,300-strong contingent, based in ancient Babylon, were sent home this week for getting drunk. One had his weapon stolen.

Poland said Thursday it would replace the force's commander, Andrzej Tyszkiewicz. General Mieczyslaw Bieniek takes over in January.

In a more serious incident, three soldiers from Bulgaria's contingent of 500 based in Kerbala were sent home last week for "conduct non-compliant with their duties."

A military investigation found the soldiers responsible for wounding a female private. Reports blamed the shooting on alcohol, but details remain sketchy.

Commanders of the Ukraine's 1,600 troops based in Kut have launched a criminal probe into the wounding of a sergeant when a colleague picked up a rifle left lying with its safety off.

Defense Minister Yevhen Marchuck has sacked several commanders for putting 15-year-old tires on armored personnel carriers bound for Iraq. The tires fell apart after driving just 100km.

After saturation coverage of the handover of Camp Babylon by US Marines to Polish command, reporting has tapered off amid a lack of hard news from the largely peaceful region.

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