The United States is planning increasingly to shift the duties of foreign troops in Iraq from providing security to training Iraq's new army and police to prevent more countries from abandoning the international coalition there and possibly lure others back.
The coalition has included about three dozen nations, which contributed 20,000 to 25,000 soldiers, or about 11 percent, of the foreign troops performing security operations in Iraq, adding to a U.S. contingent of 155,000. But the deployments have been highly unpopular in several countries and a political liability for participating governments, especially with troops forced to stay longer than envisioned to defeat the insurgency.
Since last summer, troops from almost a dozen countries have withdrawn from Iraq or announced plans to leave.
Portugal quietly pulled out its 150 soldiers this month. Next month, the Netherlands will begin withdrawing its 1,700 troops, one of the largest contingents. And Ukraine's new government has signaled plans for a phased pullout of its 1,600 soldiers.
However, Iraq's elections last month and President Bush's goodwill mission to Europe this week appear to be breathing new life into the U.S.-led occupation, officials from European and coalition countries said. The plan to beef up training has sparked new commitments of instructors, funds and equipment, in addition to troops committed to other functions.
"Countries have been very supportive, especially recently," Gen. David H. Petraeus, the head of the training mission in Iraq, said in an e-mail. "We have indeed seen the impact of the sense of momentum building here as a result of the elections and the heartening performance of the Iraqi Security Forces during that period and since, despite challenges."
Pentagon officials declined to say how many trainers they seek. But the transformation of the coalition has already started. Australia announced this week that it will soon dispatch 450 new troops to Iraq -- more than double the number of Australian forces now deployed in the country -- to assist with training.
"There has been a change in the outlook for Iraq since the election. We are now at a tilting point," Australian Prime Minister John Howard told a news conference Tuesday. "Everybody now agrees that if the ultimate goal of the withdrawal of foreign forces and the assumption of internal security arrangements, as well as defense against an external threat, is to be undertaken by the Iraqis, they must be better trained. And we have a role to play in that."
Like other coalition members, Australia had withdrawn most of its forces, with its original 2,000-troop deployment down to 900. But most of the remaining force was outside Iraq, deployed in neighboring countries or on ships nearby, leaving about 200 in Iraq and almost none in combat deployments. Other countries are down to two dozen or three dozen troops in Iraq. All of Singapore's 180 deployed troops are on a ship offshore.
NATO's training mission -- designed to bolster U.S. efforts to create viable Iraqi security forces -- has proved more popular with European nations and members of NATO because countries can sign on without appearing to support the U.S.-led war. All 26 NATO nations have pledged support to the training efforts, some offering to send trainers into the country, others offering financial assistance or external training, something U.S. commanders deem vital.
And while the foreign security forces in Iraq shrink, with U.S. forces scaling back to pre-election totals of about 138,000 and other nations withdrawing their troops, U.S. commanders believe the training effort will generate the necessary number of Iraqi forces to replace them. Ideally, they say, the new Iraqi forces will be able to take over for U.S. units in calmer areas of Iraq as new recruits flood in. U.S. military leaders hope the Iraqi security forces will outnumber U.S. troops in the country by the end of this year.
Australia's decision reflects the new possibilities for the coalition. Other countries that had left or planned to withdraw expressed a willingness recently to contribute new forces for training, several under the auspices of the NATO mission. One of the tangible results of Bush's trip this week was a commitment from the final six NATO countries to contribute resources or personnel to the NATO training program.
Portugal could send back almost as many troops as it had earlier deployed in Iraq, this time as part of the NATO mission. "The elections changed completely the legitimacy of the new government. That makes it more acceptable [to send troops] in a different framework," said Manuel Pereira, the Portuguese Embassy press counselor.
Poland pulled out 700 of its 2,400 troops this month and announced that it will withdraw the rest this year, but a senior Polish general is due in Washington next week to discuss how to "restructure" the Polish mission to contribute to training, said Murek Purowski, the Polish Embassy spokesman.
"Like the United States, the Polish government can now show that its involvement, including the 18 soldiers killed, had grounds and there were achievements," Purowski said. "There is a different attitude now about Iraq among the public. The outcome of the election is something to be proud of. And the talks of President Bush in Europe have helped, certainly."
Top officials from Ukraine, including new President Viktor Yushchenko, are also expected in Washington over the next two months, and that country's mission in Iraq will be part of the discussions. Yushchenko has not ruled out the possibility that some Ukrainian troops could remain to train Iraqi army and police, Ukrainian Embassy spokeswoman Iryna Bezverkha said.
Despite its withdrawal next month, the Netherlands said this week that it will dispatch 25 troops to help NATO train Iraq's fledgling military.
Even countries with only a token presence in Iraq, to symbolize their endorsement of the U.S.-led multinational force, have offered trainers. Macedonia has 33 troops in Iraq, but decided this week to deploy 12 additional soldiers to boost the training program for the army and police, said Slobodan Tasovski, deputy chief of mission at the Macedonian Embassy.
The administration is framing the shift as the final phase for the occupation, because the training of Iraq's new military is the key to the exit strategy for the United States and its allies.
"The goal has always been to establish a capable Iraqi security force, both military and police, that would eventually be able to manage their protection both internally and externally without becoming a threat to their neighbors," said Lt. Col. David Farlow, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command. "The mission evolves, the requirements evolve, and this is a natural evolution as we go through the process."