Poland's leaders have floated the idea of withdrawing troops from Iraq by the end of next year, giving the first timetable for a planned pullout by the staunch Washington ally.
Warsaw's defence minister on Monday said most troops should leave Iraq by the end of 2005, the first mention of a specific date.
President Aleksander Kwasniewski also spoke of such a timeframe for withdrawal, but said no exact date had been set yet.
Poland has 2500 soldiers in south-central Iraq and runs a multinational division of 8000 troops there. It has said it planned to significantly scale down its military presence in Iraq after general elections scheduled for January 2005.
Seventeen Poles have died during the 13-month deployment and opinion polls show nearly three-quarters of the public oppose the presence of Polish troops in Iraq.
This has been putting pressure on Prime Minister Marek Belka to present a pull-out plan.
Kwasniewski said no exact date
had been set for withdrawal
Defence Minister Jerzy Szmajdzinski told the Gazeta Wyborcza newspaper that the troop withdrawal should coincide with the late 2005 expiry of a UN Security Council resolution that endorsed Iraq's current interim government.
A handful of Polish officers and observers could stay longer as part of any continued stabilisation mission, he added.
President Kwasniewski said it might be possible to "maybe finish our mission at the end of 2005" but discussions on that continued.
"We have to behave in a responsible fashion," he said.
Belka said he had not authorised Szmajdzinski to announce a timetable, which departs from Warsaw's long-standing position that troops would remain in Iraq "as long as it takes" to complete their mission.
Before becoming prime minister in May, Belka worked for nine months at the former US occupation administration in Iraq.
He has argued that Poland's engagement there has paid dividends by helping the EU newcomer quickly gain a respected voice on European defence and foreign policy issues.
Foreign Minister Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz said it was too early to give a date or timetable for any withdrawal. "We can't forget our responsibilities, not only to the Iraqi people, that's the most important, but also to our allies," he said.
Polish centre-right opposition
backed involvement in Iraq
Szmajdzinski's statement followed demands from the junior partner in the ruling coalition for an initial timetable for the withdrawal of Polish troops from Iraq.
Two opposition parties are collecting signatures for a public petition to highlight discontent over the deployment.
Belka's minority government faces a parliamentary vote of confidence later in October, which it is expected to win.
General elections are due by mid-2005, when the ruling left is expected to lose to the centre-right opposition, which also supported Poland's military involvement in Iraq.