Coalition force in Iraq shrinks

Ukraine, Bulgaria pull out last troops

Poland plans deep cuts in deployment

December 28, 2005|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- The U.S.-led international military coalition in Iraq shrank further yesterday after Bulgaria and Ukraine completed troop withdrawals and Poland announced it was reducing its contingent by 40 percent and switching to a non-combat role.

Responding to appeals from U.S. officials, the Polish government reversed an earlier plan to remove all troops by the end of this year. But Polish officials said the 900 remaining soldiers of its 1,500-troop force will focus almost exclusively on training Iraqis while they wind down their mission over the course of 2006.

Prime Minister Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz said in Warsaw that the government would like to complete the drawdown of its forces "not in an abrupt way, but gradually." Ukraine's departure, which had been announced earlier this year, removed a final 876 troops and Bulgaria's 380.

The "coalition of the willing," as the Bush administration had dubbed it, has dwindled from a peak of 38 nations and 50,000 troops in mid-2003 to 26 countries and about 23,000 troops, according to a State Department tally. Most of the remaining countries have announced that they will end their participation in 2006.

Since only the 8,000-member British force plays a substantial combat role, the disappearance of the international contingent would not be a major military blow for the United States.

But the departures represent a political setback for the Bush administration because troops from other countries help lend international legitimacy to the U.S.-led effort to build a new Iraq.

Bush administration officials have been stepping up their efforts in recent months to build international support for Iraq in hopes of strengthening the young government in Baghdad. U.S. and Iraqi officials have been urging coalition members around the world to delay their departures.

Polish officials have made clear that they hope their continuing cooperation will result in a payoff for them in the form of U.S. aid, although they insist the decision to stay is not linked to it. They have been pressing for additional American help in the modernizing of their military, pointing out that their own military reform efforts have been set back by the $600 million they have spent each year in Iraq.

The White House said it respected the troop deployment decisions made by the governments of Poland, Bulgaria and Ukraine, but it declined to discuss the effects they might have on U.S. plans to withdraw forces next year.

"Those are questions the president has always left to his military commanders in the field," deputy press secretary Trent Duffy told reporters in Crawford, Texas, where Bush is spending the week at his family ranch.

South Korea, which is the second-largest troop contributor after Britain, is expected to order home about 1,000 of its 3,200 troops in the first half of 2006. Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said last month that the 2,900 Italian troops in Iraq would probably all come home this year.

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