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The GROM Factor

Haven't heard of Poland's Special Forces? They're real, they're serious, and they're here to save the day.

2:40 PM, May 8, 2003 • By VICTORINO MATUS
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IT CAME AS A SURPRISE to many when the U.S. postwar plans for Iraq were finally revealed. Like Gaul, Iraq would be divided into three parts: an American zone, a British zone, and a Polish zone. But what role did Poland play during the war? It turns out a very important one--albeit one that was kept mostly secret.

One of the primary objectives during the early stages of Operation Iraqi Freedom was the port at Umm Qasr. Without it, delivering adequate humanitarian aid to the rest of Iraq would have been nearly impossible for the coalition. Not long after the start of the war, the port was secured--in large part thanks to GROM, Poland's elite commandos.

Who even knew Poland had special forces? For a while, not many. The Polish government waited three years before publicly disclosing GROM's existence. Standing for Grupa Reagowania Operacyjno Mobilnego (Operational Mobile Response Group), the name actually stems from a special-forces commander, Gromoslaw Czempinski, who, during the first Gulf War, led a Polish unit into Western Iraq to rescue a group of CIA operatives. One of the other men on that secret mission was Slawomir Petelicki--the father of GROM.

"GROM was my idea," General Petelicki says in his husky, accented voice. "I presented it to the new democratic government" in 1991 "and because I liked to give honor to the commander of my unit, I named it after Gromoslaw." (Grom also means thunder in Polish.) Petelicki, now retired from the military, spoke from Warsaw where he is now an independent consultant for, among others, Ernst & Young. It's quite a change of pace for a man once described in Jane's Intelligence Review as "his country's James Bond and Rambo wrapped neatly into one daunting package." (Petelicki also serves as chairman of the Special Forces Foundation. "I try to help former commandos and discourage them from going into organized crime--where there are many lucrative offers for work.")

Petelicki tried selling his idea of an elite Polish commando group much earlier, "but those Russians didn't like to have real special forces operating in Poland--they feared we could start training in guerrilla warfare against them." But the need did arise in 1990, following Operation Bridge, in which Poland helped Soviet Jews enter Israel. Intelligence reports indicated that Hezbollah and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine were planning reprisals inside the Polish border. Then-Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki recognized the threat and approved of Petelicki's plan for a new counter-terror force.

"I had a lot of candidates at first" says the general. "That first team I assembled from people I knew well. They were all in their 30s. Now the age of recruits is about 26." According to Jane's Intelligence Review, "GROM candidates were first subjected to a grueling psychological examination meant to search for confident and innovative soldiers as well as those who, though they might be lacking in physical strength, possessed the rare gift of internal iron will." The candidates then undergo back-breaking training deep in the Carpathian Mountains.

Only 1 to 5 percent of these candidates actually get into GROM. But once they are in, the real training begins: GROM operators practice "killing house" entries (with commanders often serving as hostages), storm hijacked commercial airliners complete with mannequin terrorists and bullet traps, and lead raids onto ships and offshore platforms. All of this is done with live ammunition. The commandos are trained in paramedics and demolitions and many are SCUBA experts. They mostly work in four to six-man assault teams except for the snipers who are separate because, as Petelicki explains, "that is a job for special people and they are very hard to replace."

Radek Sikorski, Poland's former deputy minister of defense and now executive director of the New Atlantic Initiative, recently told me he witnessed the snipers at their best during a training exercise in 1999. "The GROM operators were working alongside the Delta Force and were tasked with rescuing the chairman of the National Bank of Poland. He was being held hostage by terrorists in possession of a nuclear device." Sikorski says the snipers waited for days in complete disguise. "They just followed the terrorists' routines and then started to pick them off one by one."

GROM operators are said to be martial arts experts and capable of "cold killing." "We created our own style of martial arts," says Petelicki. "I have an old friend who is a master of karate and jujitsu and is a sixth degree black belt. He created the style with other specialists--it is most similar to what the Israelis do."

And what about "cold killing"? Asked if the ominous term refers to garrotes or piano wire, Petelicki replies "Yes." Pausing to choose his words carefully, he explains, "Many things. For instance, we can create a weapon from . . . well . . . many things." The weapon used most by GROM is the MP5 submachine gun. They also get to choose their own sidearm--most choose either the Glock Model 19 or the SIG-Sauer P228.

PETELICKI says that GROM is a mixture of the Delta Force, SAS, and the Navy SEALs. "We took what we found best from each group." (GROM trainers have been to Fort Bragg as well as Hereford--home of the SAS.)

For the past twelve years, GROM operators have engaged in numerous operations, including peacekeeping in the Balkans and Haiti. In 1997, they successfully captured Slavko Dokmanovic, aka, "the Butcher of Vukovar" who was held responsible for the murder of 260 Croats. Despite being well-protected by Serb commandos, Dokmanovic was successfully captured alive (his bodyguards didn't fare so well).

So what was the significance in having 56 commandos from the 300-member GROM take part in Operation Iraqi Freedom? "This war saved GROM," says Petelicki. "Without it, it would have been broken up between the army and navy. But now everyone knows about GROM in Poland and they are proud of them."

Radek Sikorski observes that "It was wise for the United States to show countries who backed it in this war that they are appreciated. This will probably pave the way for more 'coalitions of the willing.' Poland took a lot of risks supporting America. It also took a beating from some of its European friends." Sikorski thinks this could be the beginning of a special relationship with the United States, akin to the one shared by Great Britain, but warns "it is still in the very early stages and much will also depend on America's staying power in the region, its willingness to remain interested in Central Europe. One thing the Americans could do is move their bases out of Germany and into Poland, which has less population density and greater space to conduct exercises."

Since GROM's creation 12 years ago, only 4 commandos have been killed in operations. I asked General Petelicki if, during those years, there is one mission that stands out. "Although 70 percent of our operations are still top secret, the one operation I liked best was this last one at Umm Qasr. That was definitely my favorite. [He sighs.] I was jealous I could not be there instead of Colonel Polko [the current commander of GROM]. Umm Qasr was a very risky operation--a lot of explosives were used--but there were no casualties for us." He adds, "I liked it because we were able to help our friends, the Americans, who helped us create GROM. It was a real masterpiece."

Victorino Matus is an assistant managing editor at The Weekly Standard.