Cracks growing in U.S.-led coalition

Some partners deciding to pull troops from Iraq

others hint at doing same

April 22, 2004|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - New signs of trouble are emerging in the U.S.-led military coalition in Iraq, with two Latin American nations following Spain's lead in saying they will pull out their troops and another, more significant U.S. partner - Poland - hinting at a similar move.

Yesterday, Poland's outgoing prime minister suggested that his country, which commands a division of 9,500 European troops in a violent area of central and southern Iraq, might have to reconsider its commitment to stay in Iraq after Spain's decision last weekend to withdraw its soldiers.

The multinational force that Poland leads includes 2,400 Polish troops.

"We cannot turn a blind eye to the fact that Spain and the Latin Americans are leaving Iraq," Prime Minister Leszek Miller, who leaves office next month, told reporters.

Miller added: "We will not make any rash gestures. A final decision about the pullout date will be agreed [on] and well-thought-over."

A spokesman for Poland's Foreign Ministry quickly stressed that "Poland will be in Iraq as long as necessary, until the situation there is stabilized."

Nevertheless, Miller's comments reflected growing uneasiness among troop-contributing nations whose soldiers are battling insurgents and struggling to calm Iraqi cities, as evidenced by a string of deadly suicide bombings in the British-controlled city of Basra yesterday.

Separately, Thailand's prime minister said his country would withdraw its noncombat troops from Iraq if they were attacked.

Ukraine's foreign minister reported, meanwhile, that in a conference call this week with Condoleezza Rice, President Bush's national security adviser, and European officials, he had pressed for stepped-up discussions among coalition members and a bigger role for them in deciding Iraq's future.

Pledging to stay

Since Spain announced that it would pull out its 1,400 troops, Honduras, with 368, and the Dominican Republic, with 302, have also decided to withdraw their soldiers.

Other members of the more-than-20-nation coalition have since vowed to stand firm.

Rice and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell have made phone calls this week to try to hold the rest of the coalition intact.

But the speed with which the Dominican Republic reversed itself and decided to withdraw, two days after its president declared that its troops would stay until August, showed how fragile the U.S.-led coalition is.

The announced troop withdrawals are of modest military significance.

But they serve as a symbol of widespread anxiety about the occupation of Iraq.

"We have to watch for cascading effects in the next few days or weeks," said Michael O'Hanlon, a military analyst at the Brookings Institution.

The withdrawals have had psychological, if not military, consequences. Editorials in the Arab and Asian press are pointing to signs that the U.S.-led military coalition is unraveling.

"Less people in the coalition sends a message to the Iraqi people that is not positive," said a Pentagon official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

A withdrawal by Poland, the fourth-highest troop contributor, after the United States, Britain and Italy, "would be a serious matter," said Phillip Mitchell, an analyst at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Not only has Poland contributed about 2,400 troops; it also serves a vital command-and-control function as the lead force in the central Iraq region.

The Polish zone, in the Shia heartland, includes the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala.

"It would be a huge, huge blow," said Sen. Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat on the Armed Services Committee who has made several trips to Iraq. "They've been a very strong ally from the beginning."

`Weak' from the start

Though American forces vastly outnumber any other troop contributor, Bush administration officials have repeatedly pointed to the other members of the coalition as evidence that the U.S.-led war was not "unilateralist," as critics have charged.

Britain, America's strongest ally in Iraq, has the second-largest contingent, with 7,500 troops concentrated in southern Iraq.

"It was a weak coalition to begin with," O'Hanlon said. If the defections can be limited to Spain and small Latin and Caribbean countries, he said, "it will not be that much weaker."

Administration officials might succeed in holding the coalition together for the time being. But more countries could begin to reconsider their contributions over the coming year as their units near rotation, O'Hanlon said.

At that point, some countries might decide against sending fresh troops to Iraq.

The nervousness evident in Poland also appears to push further into the future any major role in Iraq by the NATO alliance.

U.S. officials had suggested the possibility that the Polish-led division could become a NATO command and that the alliance might also patrol Iraq's porous borders.

So long as Iraq remains a war zone, it also seems unlikely that the United States will succeed in drawing in added forces from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, as U.S. officials had hoped.

On the sidelines

Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz acknowledged in congressional testimony Tuesday that until Iraq can be stabilized and outside forces can assume more of a peacekeeping role, other nations will likely remain on the sidelines.

The strains on the U.S.-led coalition come at a time of raging violence in parts of Iraq under control of coalition partners.

Suicide bombers killed at least 68 people yesterday, including 16 children, in four attacks in and around Basra, a southern city under the authority of British troops.

Sun staff writer Tom Bowman contributed to this article.

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