U.S. Works to Sustain Iraq Coalition
El Salvador renewed its commitment of 380 troops after President Bush hosted Salvadoran President Antonio Saca at the White House this week, the latest of several White House visits by leaders of coalition countries. Lithuania renewed its 105-troop commitment last week.
Several other countries have promised to significantly add to their contingents. South Korea is increasing its force from 600 to 3,700, while Azerbaijan offered an additional 250 soldiers to join the 150 already in Iraq. Georgia said it is ready to more than double its 159 troops -- to more than 400.
"We don't see any major defections; we see troops coming and going as they said they would; and there have been more plus-ups than withdrawals," said a senior Pentagon official involved in Iraq policy.
But some pledges the administration cites are misleading or contain caveats that call into question whether many troops will stay much beyond the first round of Iraqi elections scheduled for January.
Australia's pledge to increase its commitment will bring its troop strength to 880 -- fewer than half the 2,000 troops it had during the war. And only about 250 are in Iraq, with the rest in air and naval support positions nearby, Australian envoys say. For Australia and some other countries, increases are mainly meant to enhance security for their own troops, embassies and personnel.
Support is also tenuous in nations Washington considers to be key players. The vote this week in Italy's House of Deputies to extend its deployment was 257 to 207, a reflection of the almost even public split, an Italian envoy said. Playing to strong public antiwar sentiment, Australia's opposition pledged to withdraw troops by Christmas if elected, while revelations about the Abu Ghraib prison abuse led Hungary's opposition to call for a withdrawal despite originally supporting the deployment.
Hostage seizures of nationals from Japan, South Korea, Poland, Italy, Bulgaria, the Philippines and the United States have heightened public and political pressure, with several countries expecting debates to intensify this fall.
The first blow to the U.S.-led force was the decision by new Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero to withdraw his country's 1,300 troops, which led Honduras and the Dominican Republic to bring home their few hundred troops this spring. Britain and Spain had been the two closest U.S. allies in the Iraq war. Zapatero's election upset after a terrorist bombing at a Madrid train station deepened opposition to Spain's deployment.
For other countries, however, the issue is capability. "We have limited resources and huge commitments, like Afghanistan, the Solomon Islands, Bosnia, Kosovo and Timor," a New Zealand diplomat said. "Hostage dramas have not influenced our plans or thinking, and it was not a political decision. We're just stretched."
The countries most committed to staying are East European and former Soviet countries. "We benefited in our own recent history from foreign peacekeepers, so we understand the value of action. Our stand on Iraq is firm, and our participation is not questionable," said Macedonian Ambassador Nikola Dimitrov.
The day Spain pulled out, Albania wrote Washington to reaffirm its commitment and has since pledged to increase its troops from 71 to 200. "We're the most pro-U.S. nation in Europe," Ambassador Satos Tarisa said, "and we're in Iraq for the long haul."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company