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Key allies consider withdrawing from Iraq

Friday, December 2, 2005

Their exodus would deal a blow to American efforts to prepare Iraqis to take over the most dangerous peacekeeping tasks.

VIENNA, Austria -- Two of America's allies in Iraq are withdrawing forces this month and a half-dozen others are debating possible pullouts or reductions, increasing pressure on Washington as calls mount to bring home U.S. troops.

Bulgaria and Ukraine will begin withdrawing their combined 1,250 troops by mid-December. If Australia, Britain, Italy, Japan, Poland and South Korea reduce or recall their personnel, more than half of the non-American forces in Iraq could be gone by next summer.

Japan and South Korea help with reconstruction, but Britain and Australia provide substantial support forces while Italy and Poland train Iraqi troops and police. Their exodus would deal a blow to American efforts to prepare Iraqis to take over the most dangerous peacekeeping tasks and craft an eventual U.S. exit strategy.

"The vibrations of unease from within the United States clearly have an impact on public opinion elsewhere," said Terence Taylor of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Washington. "Public opinion in many of these countries is heavily divided."

Although the nearly 160,000-member U.S. force in Iraq dwarfs the second-largest contingent -- Britain's 8,000 in Iraq and 2,000 elsewhere in the Gulf region -- its support has shrunk substantially.

In the months after the March 2003 invasion, the multinational force numbered about 300,000 soldiers from 38 countries -- 250,000 from the U.S. and 50,000 from other countries. The coalition has steadily unraveled as the death toll rises and angry publics clamor for troops to leave.

Now the nearly 160,000-member U.S. force in Iraq is supported by just under 24,000 mostly non-combat personnel from 27 countries. Britain has the second-largest contingent with 8,000 in Iraq and 2,000 elsewhere in the Gulf region.

Ukraine's remaining 876 troops in Iraq are due home by Dec. 31, fulfilling a campaign pledge by President Viktor Yushchenko. Bulgaria is pulling out its 380 troops after Dec. 15 parliamentary elections, Defense Minister Veselin Bliznakov said.

In his strategy for Iraq, announced Wednesday, President Bush said expanding international support was one of his goals. He also seemed to address the issue of more allies withdrawing.

"As our posture changes over time, so too will the posture of our coalition partners," the document says. "We and the Iraqis must work with them to coordinate our efforts, helping Iraq to consolidate and secure its gains on many different fronts."

Struggling to shore up the coalition, Bush stopped in Mongolia on his recent Asia trip and praised its force of about 120 soldiers in Iraq as "fearless warriors."

At least 2,109 U.S. service personnel have died since the beginning of the Iraq war, according to an Associated Press count. At least 200 troops from other countries also have died, including 98 from Britain. Other tolls: Italy, 27; Ukraine, 18; Poland, 17; Bulgaria, 13; Spain, 11; Slovakia, three; Denmark, El Salvador, Estonia, Netherlands, Thailand, two each; Hungary, Kazakhstan, Latvia, one each.

Underscoring mounting opposition in nearly all coalition countries, a poll published in Japan's Asahi newspaper this week showed 69 percent of respondents opposed extending the mission, up from 55 percent in January. No margin of error was given.

Japan's Kyodo News service reported Wednesday that Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's Cabinet would decide Dec. 8 to allow its 600 troops to stay for another year, but it could decide later to withdraw troops around May.

A British drawdown would be the most dramatic.

Although Prime Minister Tony Blair's government insists there is no timetable and British forces will leave only when Iraqi troops can take over, Defense Secretary John Reid suggested last month that a pullout could begin "in the course of the next year."

South Korea, the second-largest coalition partner after Britain, is expected to withdraw about 1,000 of its 3,200 troops in the first half of 2006. The National Assembly is likely to vote on the matter this month.

Italy's military reportedly is preparing to give parliament a timetable for a proposed withdrawal of its 2,800 troops. Premier Silvio Berlusconi's government has said it plans to withdraw forces in groups of 300, but in accordance with the Iraqi government and coalition allies.

Poland's former leftist government, which lost Sept. 25 elections, had planned to withdraw its 1,400 troops in January. The new defense minister, Radek Sikorski, visits Washington this weekend for talks on Poland's coalition plans, and the new government is expected to decide by mid-December whether to extend its mission beyond Dec. 31.

"Some formula of advisory-stabilizing mission could remain on a smaller scale, of course, and our commanders are prepared for several variants," Col. Zdzislaw Gnatowski of the Polish army's general staff told The Associated Press.

Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston, head of the Australian Defense Force, has said about 450 troops in the southern province of Muthanna could leave by May. Australia has about 900 troops and support staff across Iraq.

Many coalition members have pledged to stay in Iraq for all of 2006; at least one, Lithuania, has committed to the end of 2007. And the coalition is still drawing new members, most recently Bosnia, which sent 36 bomb-disposal experts in June.

"We are getting letters of gratitude from the U.S. commanders for our peacekeepers' excellent service," said Ilgar Verdiyev, a Defense Ministry spokesman in Azerbaijan, which has 150 troops in Iraq and is one of the few mostly Muslim countries to contribute.


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