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U.S.-led coalition in Iraq dwindles as Italy, South Korea cut troops levels
VIENNA, Austria -- It's a coalition of the dwindling.
The U.S.-led multinational force in Iraq is losing troops from two of its most important allies -- Italy and South Korea -- and up to a half dozen other members could draw down their forces or pull out entirely by year's end.
The withdrawals are complicating America's effort to begin extracting itself from the country, where a fresh onslaught of deadly attacks on coalition forces is testing the resolve of key partners such as Britain and Poland.
Some observers say Iraq's deteriorating security situation is an argument for coalition forces to stay -- not leave -- and perhaps even deploy additional forces to tamp down violence as Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki works to shift security duties to Iraqis over the next 18 months.
Increased instability, violence and Islamic extremism in Iraq could require "a larger role for overt, coordinated, multilateral intervention, involving the key regional powers, to stabilize the situation," defense analyst Christopher Langton of the London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies warns in a new report.
Defense Secretary Des Browne of Britain, the No. 2 military presence in Iraq with about 8,000 troops, conceded Tuesday that the latest attacks were "a major concern."
Two British soldiers were killed and two others wounded in a roadside bombing in Basra on Sunday, bringing to nine the number of British personnel who have died in the southern Iraqi city this month and pushing total British deaths in the past three years to 113. American deaths, meanwhile, are approaching 2,500.
Despite the bloodshed, public opposition to Britain's involvement and reports that more than 1,000 British troops may have deserted since 2003, Browne insisted there were no plans to pull British troops from Iraq.
"We will continue to remain in Iraq until the Iraqi government is confident that the Iraqi security forces are capable of providing security without assistance from the coalition forces," he told the British Broadcasting Corp.
"That will, of course, be in consultation with us and our allies. But the decision on withdrawal will be based on achieving the right conditions but not on a particular timetable."
The United States still provides most of the muscle for the mission, with about 132,000 troops in Iraq.
Officials have said they would like that number reduced to about 100,000 by the end of 2006, although White House spokesman Tony Snow cautioned last week that President Bush is unlikely to say "we're going to be out in one year, two years, four years."
In the months after the March 2003 invasion, the multinational force peaked at about 300,000 soldiers from 38 nations, including 250,000 U.S. troops. But the coalition has shrunk steadily ever since, with Spain and Ukraine among the larger contributors to pull out.
The latest blow to the current 26-nation coalition is Italy's decision to pull its remaining 2,600 troops out by the end of the year.
Italy's new defense minister, Arturo Parisi, was quoted by Italian media Tuesday as saying "Italy won't turn its back on Iraq" and would offer unspecified political, civil and humanitarian support.
And Italian Foreign Minister Massimo D'Alema wrote in Tuesday's Corriere della Sera newspaper that the pullout would be carried out "with the minimum possible risk for our soldiers, who have paid a high price," referring to the deaths of 31 Italian troops in Iraq.
"We'll be able to deal with this decision while keeping in mind the consequences for the Iraqi people and the need to coordinate with coalition forces," said D'Alema, confirming the force would be reduced to 1,600 by mid-June.
South Korea, the third-largest contributor of forces, began bringing troops home this week as part of a plan to withdraw about 1,000 of its 3,200 soldiers from northern Iraq by year's end.
Other coalition members are thinking about drawing down their forces.
Lawmakers in Denmark, which has 530 personnel in Iraq, approved a government plan Tuesday to cut the contingent by 80 troops. They also extended the mission to June 30, 2007.
Japan has about 600 non-combat troops doing humanitarian work in southern Iraq, and says it won't decide whether to withdraw them until Baghdad appoints new defense and interior ministers. There has been speculation the Japanese force will be withdrawn this year.
And in Poland, the prime minister said this month that his government was weighing whether to keep troops in Iraq beyond the end of 2006. Poland has 900 troops in central Iraq, where it leads an international force.
Associated Press writer Alessandra Rizzo in Rome contributed to this story.
On the Net:
Multinational force in Iraq, http://www.mnf-iraq.com