List of 'Willing' U.S. Allies Shrinks Steadily in Iraq
Saturday, December 8, 2007
KUT, Iraq -- The commander of the Kazakh soldiers in Iraq, all 29 of them, keeps a stack of English-language instruction books on his desk inside Forward Operating Base Delta. He already speaks Russian, Turkish and Kazakh, and after English, he plans to learn Chinese. He has the time.
Kazakhstan has two main missions here on the geographic and strategic periphery of the war, and both of them could be going better. The Kazakh troops are sappers, trained to dispose of explosives. They were ordered by their government not to leave the base after one of those bombs, nearly three years ago, killed the first and only Kazakh soldier to die in Iraq. The soldiers also run a water purification system but find less use for that these days, too. "It's not necessary," said Capt. Samat Mukhanov. "There is bottled water here."
When asked how he felt about working in Iraq, the commander, Maj. Shaikh-Khasan Zazhykbayev, barked in his thick accent: "Not so comfortable! . . . But we are military. Our government sends us to serve in Iraq, and we are serving in Iraq."
President Bush once called it the "coalition of the willing," the countries willing to fight alongside the United States in Iraq. The list topped off in mid-2004 at 32 countries; troop strength peaked in November that year at 25,595. The force has since shrunk to 26 countries and 11,755 troops, or about 7 percent of the 175,000-strong multinational force, according to mid-November figures provided by the U.S. military.
From 2003 to early 2007, the United States spent $1.5 billion to support the Iraq contingents of 20 countries, the Government Accountability Office reported this year, with about two-thirds of the money devoted to Polish forces. Many nations value the equipment they get from the United States in Iraq and hope their loyalty will be rewarded in the future through help in joining international organizations, for instance.
Some officers here argue that the strength of the coalition cannot be measured simply by the number of boots on the ground. Canada, for example, has no contingent in Iraq but has committed up to $300 million in aid. Many foreign militaries, while not in Iraq for combat missions, perform a wide variety of supporting tasks, such as South Korea's 933 troops, who run a hospital and vocational technology programs in the Kurdish north and arrange for Iraqi university students to visit Korea, said Canadian Maj. Gen. Peter Devlin, who oversees issues relating to the coalition in Iraq.
"There are great strengths that come from multinationality. It brings different cultures, different equipment, different approaches, greater legitimacy to the effort here in Iraq," Devlin said.
But as the war stretches on, the non-American ranks grow thinner. The largest U.S. ally here, Britain, announced in October that it will withdraw half its remaining troops, leaving about 2,500 by spring. Sixteen nations in the coalition, more than half the total, have 100 or fewer troops in Iraq -- five have fewer than 10 people. Latvia has three soldiers deployed in Iraq, Slovakia two, Singapore one.
As with the U.S. contingent, the other countries that are still here often face domestic political pressure to withdraw. Unlike the Americans, they toil in relative obscurity: One platoon each from Macedonia and Estonia patrol the streets of Baghdad buried within American battalions; a few dozen Tongan marines guard the U.S. military headquarters at Camp Victory.
The most nationally diverse military bases, such as Delta and Echo, are in southern Iraq, the predominantly Shiite region that has experienced less violence than Baghdad or the largely Sunni areas to the west. Beyond the Kazakhs, Delta houses troops from Romania, Georgia, El Salvador and Poland. They do not take part in combat operations but man checkpoints, organize reconstruction projects, repair helicopters and distribute food.
But even if these troops never leave the base, they often feel they are carrying out their country's most important and dangerous military mission.
After five rotations in Iraq, the commander of the 13-man Romanian contingent at Delta, Liviu-Costelus Isache, said he has earned a respite and reward.