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Polish Army avoids martial law taint as ZOMOs do the dirty work

Every Sunday morning, rain or shine, a battalion of Polish troops - a band and battle flag at its head - parades around Victory Square to the memorial to the Unknown Soldier, honoring Poland's dead in two world wars.

And whatever the weather, crowds of Sunday strollers, families with children, and young adults gather to watch.

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It is part of a tradition that gave Polish warriors a special place in the nation's history even before Poland had its own National Army. The Army continues to stand high in public esteem, its image undiminished by martial law.

The explanation: It has been kept well apart from the visible substance of the military regime that has run Poland for a year.

There were some misgivings when martial law was imposed last December. But the armed forces have been watchful bystanders of the intermittent and sometimes fatal clashes between government security forces on the one side and Solidarity union members and Poland's frustrated youth on the other.

As though to drive the point home, TV, almost nightly, presents a documentary film on the armed forces at training and military exercises. Healthy-looking, well-outfitted young men and officers operate tanks and missile carriers or complex electronic gear, or fly Soviet MIG aircraft made under license in Poland.

Although they have been on alert, the draftees in Poland's 220,000-man Army have been confined to patrol and other support duties throughout the martial-law period.

It was the young men of the intensely disliked ZOMO riot police who were moved against strikers in factories and mines at the start of martial law. And it has been ZOMO that has put down the street demonstrations that have cost more than a dozen lives since.

ZOMO is the acronym of the Motorized Units of the Citizens' Militia. For Poles it represents a tough, rough, few-holds-barred auxiliary to the main police forces, with two unpleasant differences:

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* Ordinary police are in autonomous provincial forces. ZOMO's 30,000 men are a national outfit and have received military training.

* ZOMO is equipped not only with antiriot paraphernalia such as water cannon and tear gas, but also with light armored weapons and vehicles that give them a deadly mobility.

As ZOMO's methods have become less and less ambiguous, its forbidding reputation has escalated. There have been efforts to dispel its negative image and present ZOMO as existing not only to quell street disorders but also to protect life and maintain law and order for the citizenry at large.

Popular gossip has it that drugs and alcohol are supplied to get the requisite degree of ruthlessness and that most ZOMO recruits are school dropouts with low IQ. But knowledgeable Western observers give little credence to either point.

The force's officers claim, with some justification, that a reasonably high educational standard is required for admission.

It may seem paradoxical, but in the past many university and high school graduates opted to do compulsory national service in ZOMO rather than in the armed forces, calculating that discipline would be less rigorous there.

ZOMO's recruits undergo the same kind of intensive ideological and political education as the armed forces. But it would be naive to try to predict how well either one would follow orders in the event of some ultimate emergency. It would depend, an observer said, ''on just what comes about and how.''

As early as March of last year, a top-level Soviet-Polish meeting in Moscow confirmed the Kremlin formulation that justified the Warsaw Pact intervention in Czechoslovakia in 1968.

''The socialist community is inseparable, defense of it is the cause not only of each state but also of the entire socialist coalition,'' the communique said.

Poland and its armed forces - at 317,000 armed men all told the largest in the Warsaw Pact outside the Soviet Union - constitute the cornerstone of Warsaw Pact capability. Without it, Russia's northwestern flank would be dangerously exposed and the vital East German ally isolated.

The Army is regarded by the Soviets as the best trained in East Europe. Western experts concur.

In theory, the Polish forces are an independent entity. In 1956, Poland's defiant Wladislaw Gomulka persuaded the Russians to withdraw their officers from his army. Soviet Warsaw Pact forces garrisoned in Poland became subject to Polish law.

A political directorate in the Polish Defense Ministry forms the link with the party leadership. Both now are combined in the person of Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski.

The Warsaw Pact operates under a representative political consultative committee and a so-called Unified Command of its armed forces. In theory, the consultative committee defines the international stands to be taken, and the command has authority only over the specific forces assigned to it by each member state.

Within the treaty, however, both the commander-in-chief and the chief of the general staff are Russians, and there is a pervasive Soviet presence in the liaison groups in each capital. Politically and militarily, the Soviets obviously have the last word.

It is impossible to gauge how all this would function or how Polish military morale might react to any intervention by the Soviet military in a final failure in Polish civil and security authority.

With General Jaruzelski in charge, the loyalty of the sophisticated, disciplined, and privileged senior officers' corps would seem to be above question. Many outside observers say the same would probably hold true for junior officers and professional noncommissioned officers.

But the draftees - about half the men in uniform - come from ordinary circumstances. Most have had family or friends in Solidarity. Their loyalty might be more open to question. Yet they, too, seem well disciplined. Their conditions are reasonably good. They are well fed.

The test may never come, as long as General Jaruzelski retains Soviet confidence, particularly if he can somehow manage to make enough economic gains to take some of the edge off the workers' present disillusionment and apathy.

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