DIWANIYAH, Iraq — Poland turned over control of an area south of Baghdad to American troops on Saturday, making it the latest in a string of countries to leave the dwindling U.S.-led coalition.
But even as Polish troops head home from Iraq, their government is boosting troop levels in Afghanistan and preparing for a U.S. missile defense base in Poland.
As a band played Poland's anthem, Polish soldiers hoisted their nation's red and white flag on a parade field at their main base, Camp Echo, just outside of Diwaniyah.
Maj. Gen. Andrzej Malinowski, the top Polish commander in Iraq, then knelt on the gravel-covered field and ceremoniously kissed a sky blue banner with the words "Operation Iraqi Freedom" and the image of a dove.
The top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. Ray Odierno said "the timing is right" for Poland's withdrawal thanks to a sharp drop in violence that is also allowing the U.S. to slightly cut troop levels and transfer more responsibility to Iraqis.
But some Poles say that leaving as things are getting better means the eastern European country could miss out on economic rewards in Iraq. That's the view of Leszek Miller, who was the Polish prime minister when the country joined the U.S.-led coalition in 2003.
"I don't think it's a good time to leave Iraq," Miller told The Associated Press on Friday. "Now in Iraq, the situation is stabilizing and the time has come for economic benefits."
But Polish Defense Minister Bogdan Klich said there is still hope for building those economic ties.
"Completing our mission doesn't mean we finish our engagement with this country," he said during the ceremony. Poland, he added, is interested "in collaborating in the sphere of economy, finances and business with the hosts of this land."
Polish special forces fought in the initial 2003 invasion, and the country went on to command an international coalition that at its peak included troops from more than 20 other countries and oversaw five provinces south of Baghdad.
At first, Poland kept 2,500 soldiers in the country, but the numbers gradually fell to 900. Several countries once under Polish command _ Spain, most memorably _ bolted years ago.
Looking back, Polish military and political leaders say the Iraq experience has given the ex-communist country's long untested military invaluable combat experience that has helped it transform into a modern force that can hold its own in NATO, which it joined in 1999.
"Our army today, after the mission in Iraq, is completely different. Before the mission we didn't know what it was capable of because it hadn't participated in a conflict, and had only fought on training fields," Miller said. "The skills that Polish generals and officers attained in Iraq, the experience, make the army far more efficient than before."
Stanislaw Koziej, a retired general and deputy defense minister from 2005-2006, said commanding the multinational mission gave Poland "an experience that very few countries _ other than superpowers _ have."
"Up until 2003, Poland was treated more like a third- or fourth-tier country," Koziej said. But now, its "voice is listened to more seriously" within NATO and the European Union.
The conflict initially enjoyed popular support in Poland but quickly lost it as the insurgency took off and Saddam Hussein's alleged weapons of mass destruction failed to surface.
Disillusion deepened when the expected fruits of the country's sacrifice _ vast economic opportunities for Polish companies in Iraq _ failed to materialize.
That bitterness, however, has been relegated to the past, with Polish-U.S. ties stronger than ever. In August, Poland agreed to let the United States place a missile defense base on its territory, part of a European system that Washington says is aimed against possible future missile attacks from Iran.
Poland is also in the process this fall of increasing troop levels from 1,200 to 1,600 in Afghanistan, where it trains Afghan soldiers and provides security along an 180-mile stretch of road between the capital of Kabul and Kandahar.
Associated Press Writer Ryan Lucas contributed to this report from Warsaw, Poland.