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Poland Reemerges

From communist backwater to major player in the US-led coalition in Iraq - Poland has come a long way in 14 years. Since democracy arrived in 1989, the nation has joined NATO and will probably vote in June to approve European Union membership.

And Warsaw was also a winner in the Iraq war. While it contributed only 200 special-forces troops, that was the fourth-highest number after the US, Britain, and Australia. As a reward, the coalition has asked the Poles to lead the peacekeeping in one-quarter of Iraq. Some 1,500 to 2,000 Polish troops will participate, presumably along with soldiers from other countries.

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Poland is striking a delicate balance. In choosing to support the United States in the runup to the war, it angered two of its most important EU partners-to-be, France and Germany. That led to Jacques Chirac's arrogant lecture on how well-brought-up nations behave. Berlin revealed its continued pique last week when Warsaw, in an Alice-in-Wonderland moment, invited it to participate in the Polish-led peacekeeping force. Germany's response: a curt Nein, danke.

It's a remarkable restoration of fortune. A European power for centuries, Poland was conquered and subdivided among Prussia, Austria-Hungary, and Russia in the late 1700s. Restored to independence after World War I, it was carved up again by Hitler and Stalin in 1939, then made a Soviet vassal state after the war.

Despite success, the left-of-center government can't afford to rest on its Iraq laurels for long. With low approval ratings and unemployment of 20 percent, it is counting on EU membership to pull Poland to prosperity.

Still, Poland is back. Now the rest of Europe, along with the Poles, must adjust to that new reality.