Coalition firm despite Italian pullout, leaders say

Despite assurances, loss would undermine force militarily, symbolically

March 18, 2005|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON - Despite Italy's announcement this week that it might begin pulling its troops out of Iraq in the fall, President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair say the military coalition in Iraq remains strong.

But the announcement puts further pressure on the alliance, which has lost thousands of troops from several countries in recent months, weakening military strength on the ground and undermining its symbolic value around the world.

The troops have been pulling out even as a persistent insurgency continues to kill dozens of Iraqis - and a lesser number of U.S. military personnel - each week across the country.

FOR THE RECORD - An article Friday misrepresented the number of reported incidents involving Iraqi civilian deaths as the number of Iraqi deaths. According to the count by the nonprofit organization, the death toll was 528 in January 2004, 447 in January 2005 and 606 last month.
The Sun regrets the errors.

Italy has contributed the fourth-highest number of troops in the coalition, with 3,085 in Iraq. Italian forces are considered among the best-trained in Europe and have played an important part in helping to stabilize the country from the central Iraq town of Najaf southward.

`A drifting situation'

"You can't lose that number of troops and not have it influence the security in Iraq," said Timothy Garden, a defense expert with the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London. "We've reached a drifting situation, where each nation is making its own decision about when to go home, because so many countries see no end to this."

Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's announcement Tuesday that he plans to bring his troops home beginning in September took many by surprise, despite Italians' overwhelming opposition to the deployment.

Responding to concerns over whether the announcement indicated a fissure in the coalition, Bush and Blair said yesterday that Berlusconi had assured them that any withdrawal would be gradual and would be dependent on Iraqis being able to fend for themselves.

Elections in Italy

Italian public opposition to the deployment intensified greatly this month after an Italian security agent in Iraq was shot to death by U.S. troops while transporting to safety an Italian journalist freed after a month in captivity.

Italian elections are to be held in just over two weeks, and analysts say there is little doubt Berlusconi factored that into his announcement.

"He has two weeks until elections but then months before this very tentative talk about withdrawing," said Robert McGeehan, an associate fellow at the Institute for the Study of the Americas at the University of London.

"There will be plenty of time for him to say events have dictated another change in plans, that the troops will stay longer," he added. "In the meantime, it's a source of no great joy for the coalition."

While events could delay the Italian troops' departure, the U.S. and British militaries have already been stretched thin by other pullouts.

Though Australia eventually picked up many of the duties of departing Dutch soldiers, most of the gap-filling has fallen to the United States and Britain.

"If the Italians leave, that is indeed a significant loss to the coalition," said Garden. "The troops who have already been called home were important, but the Italians are more so."

The last Dutch troops arrived home this week, after their Iraq deployment had been extended eight months. Holland had been among the largest contributors, with 1,400 troops.

"We'd reject any talk that this is an abandonment of our role in Iraq," said Bart P. Jochems, a Foreign Ministry spokesman. "We not only lived up to our commitment but extended it, and made absolutely clear that when this extension was over that our role would be over."

The Netherlands' exodus, while not approaching the potential loss of Italy in terms of numbers, has been significant if only because it comes after the loss of thousands of troops from at least 14 other countries, from contingents as large as the 1,400 Spanish troops to the almost purely symbolic 51 troops withdrawn by Tonga.

Among other countries that have left are Thailand, Honduras, Hungary, Singapore and the Dominican Republic.

Poland and Ukraine, which had several thousand troops in Iraq, are also leaving.

Bush sees unity

Bush played down Berlusconi's announcement, saying Wednesday that coalition partners remained united.

"He wanted me to know that there was no change in his policy, that in fact any withdrawals would be done in consultation with allies, and would be done depending upon the ability of Iraqis to defend themselves," Bush said.

Blair was even more adamant. Berlusconi had said Tuesday that he and the British prime minister had discussed the need for an exit strategy, raising questions over whether the British might also be seeking a way out of Iraq.

"We've always said we should leave as soon as possible once the Iraqi forces are in the position where they are capable of dealing with their own security," Blair told the House of Commons on Wednesday. "Neither the Italian government or ourselves have set some form of deadline for withdrawal."

A dwindling alliance

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