Poland links Iraq attacks to upcoming election

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WARSAW, Oct 15 (Reuters) Poland's government attacked opponents today for making Iraq an issue in next week's election after gunmen launched mortar and machinegun assaults on two mainly Polish military bases in southern Iraq.

Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski, a strong ally of the United States, faces a tough challenge in the Oct. 21 election from opposition parties that want to pull Polish troops out of Iraq. A majority of Poles want to bring the soldiers home.

Defence Minister Aleksander Szczyglo said opposition parties were increasing the risks for Poland's 900 soldiers in Iraq by making the engagement an issue in the campaign.

''The need to get into the parliament is causing some politicians to endanger the lives of our soldiers,'' Szczyglo told a news conference.

He said that in calling for parties to limit discussion ''I was only motivated by concerns for the safety of our soldiers.'' A series of attacks on Polish targets in Iraq have suddenly brought Poland's engagement there into the election debate in the country of 38 million, the European Union's biggest former communist member. Poland also has forces in Afghanistan.

Polish troops are based in southern Iraq as part of the US-led multinational force. In Monday's attack, four civilians were killed and 17 wounded, a Polish military spokesman said. Two of the dead were under 10 and the others were teenagers.

OPPOSITION CHALLENGE Yesterday, Reuters obtained a copy of a video in which two previously unknown Shi'ite groups claimed responsibility for recent attacks on Poland's ambassador and its embassy and warned Polish troops to leave Iraq ''before you drown in its swamp''.

The conservative Kaczynski, whose brother Lech is the president, has said that pulling troops out of Iraq would amount to desertion.

But he faces a very strong challenge from the centrist Civic Platform party, whose leader Donald Tusk backed Poland's initial involvement in Iraq but now says it is time to start bringing the troops home.

A poll today showed the Civic Platform may win a majority of seats, particularly after a strong showing by Tusk in a televised debate with the prime minister on Friday. Polls had previously shown the parties neck-and-neck.

The poll for the Dziennik newspaper showed Tusk's Civic Platform with 46 percent support, which would give it 236 seats out of 460 in the lower house of parliament.

Kaczynski's Law and Justice trailed by 14 points, the largest margin in the campaign ahead of Sunday's election.

The far right League of Polish Families is also making political capital from the Iraq involvement.

If the Civic Platform manages to consolidate its gains, it could be in a position to form Poland's first single party government since the collapse of communism nearly two decades ago with a parliamentary majority.

But it would be likely to need support from a coalition partner to be able to override vetoes from the president, who does not face re-election until 2010.

REUTERS RSA PM2232

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