Poland loses out on top NATO military job

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BRUSSELS, Nov 14 (Reuters) Poland lost its bid to become the first former Warsaw Pact country to provide NATO's top soldier today when alliance defence chiefs named an Italian to the post.

Italian Admiral Giampaolo Di Paola beat Polish General Franciszek Gagor in a secret ballot at NATO headquarters to become chairman of the Military Committee, the alliance's top military authority composed of 26 national chiefs of defence.

Some diplomats suspected the Polish candidate's defeat reflected displeasure with the nationalist agenda of Warsaw's former government which lost elections last month.

The NATO vote will also do little to soften the stance of the new centre-right government in talks on US proposals to site interceptors on Polish soil as part of a missile defence shield in eastern Europe.

''There will be repercussions in Poland. Think of the missile shield negotiations,'' said one alliance diplomat who requested anonymity.

Di Paola, 63, the current Italian chief of defence staff, will start his three-year term in June 2008, replacing outgoing Canadian General Ray Henault, NATO said in a statement.

It was the first time an officer from a former Warsaw Pact nation had stood for the position and some in the alliance had tipped Gagor, 56, as a favourite to get the job.

''The Poles felt quite confident with what they considered a very good candidate, even indeed at times a front-runner,'' said one alliance diplomat who requested anonymity.

NATO gave no details of voting by national defence chiefs except to confirm that Di Paola won a majority of the 26 votes.

A senior US diplomat in Europe said Washington had lobbied on Gagor's behalf and put his defeat down to the damage done to Poland's image in Western Europe by the Kaczynski twins, who held the posts of president and prime minister and who clashed with states such as Germany on issues like EU voting rights.

Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski was defeated in the parliamentary elections. His twin brother, Lech, is president.

A second diplomat said Poland understood it had the backing of eastern European allies and the support of the United States but had never received a cast-iron assurance from Washington.

A statement issued after the vote by Admiral Mike Mullen, US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff congratulated Di Paola and thanked Henault for his work.

The post of chairman of the military committee is NATO's highest uniformed position. It is distinct from the role of Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) held by US General John Craddock, who is the top commander of NATO operations.

Poland's new government gave notice last month it would toughen Warsaw's stance on the proposed US missile shield to be composed of missile interceptors in Poland and radar sites in the Czech Republic.

However its negotiator said last week talks with the United States could be resumed within weeks and that a deal could be ready for approval by spring.

REUTERS PY VC2353

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