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List of 'Willing' U.S. Allies Shrinks Steadily in Iraq

Georgian troops search a vehicle at one of their six checkpoints. The former Soviet republic has sent about a quarter of its army to Iraq. Some nations hope their participation will be rewarded one day.
Georgian troops search a vehicle at one of their six checkpoints. The former Soviet republic has sent about a quarter of its army to Iraq. Some nations hope their participation will be rewarded one day. (By Joshua Partlow -- The Washington Post)

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"I expect good position in city hall," he said.

The Romanian contingent at Delta, part of a force of nearly 500 Romanian troops in Iraq, works inside a narrow trailer papered with aerial maps, tracking the movements of its last functional surveillance drone -- two have crashed, one is missing parts -- on a black-and-white Sony monitor.

The Romanians have flown more than 500 surveillance missions since 2003, including over the Iranian border and in support of nearby Polish troops.

When not in the trailer, they sometimes attend services at a small Orthodox church outside the barracks. In the evening, they gather around the communal television to watch Romanian soccer matches. They miss their families and home towns but consider the assignment valuable for their careers. With reporters, they conspicuously avoid offering opinions about whether their country should leave Iraq.

"I'm not hoping to leave. I'm not dis-hoping. It's a job," said Florin Tudorache, 27. "I wanted to come here, because it's the best way to show that as a military man you're prepared for a fight in any country."

The commander, Isache, seemed convinced that a Romanian pullout is still far off. "Our opinion is this will take a very long time to solve the problems in Iraq. Until the Iraqi conception is changed," he said, "I think our work will be continuing."

Across the base, the commander of El Salvador's 280 troops in Iraq, Col. Jos¿ Atilio Ben¿tez, oversees a mission that frequently sends men off the base. In their U.S.-supplied Humvees, members of the Cuscatlan battalion distribute food and school supplies and coordinate small-scale reconstruction projects. On the way home from one mission to hand out wheelchairs and other goods last month, soldiers detoured on their way back to base after a rare roadside bomb exploded on their planned route.

"It is very dangerous here, it's a very big conflict," one Salvadoran soldier said, though Wasit province is one of the safer areas in Iraq. Over the course of the war, five Salvadoran soldiers have been killed.

"There are people who are against our presence here, and every time there is a casualty, those opponents find ammunition to cancel our mission," Ben¿tez said.

Several Salvadoran soldiers said they found meaning in their mission because they had experienced a 12-year civil war in their country in the 1980s -- during which the U.S.-supported military committed atrocities against civilians -- and wanted to help Iraq escape the same fate.

"Not everybody's going to leave, but they're going to size down," Ben¿tez said of the other coalition countries in Iraq. "But perhaps they haven't lived, in flesh and blood, terrorism like we have."

Some of the foreign countries' contingents at Delta have shrunk -- El Salvador's is about 100 soldiers smaller than its peak; Poland has sent home about 1,500 troops and today has about 900 left in southern Iraq.

But one country is increasing its responsibility. Georgia, a former Soviet republic that wants to join NATO, has sent about a quarter of its army, nearly 2,000 soldiers, to Iraq. The Georgians operate six checkpoints in Wasit, searching vehicles for explosives that they believe are being smuggled from Iran.

Some of the Georgian soldiers live in a small combat outpost near the Iranian border. On a recent trip from Delta to the outpost, a Georgian convoy drove aggressively along a straight, narrow desert road, firing machine guns into the air when the troops deemed oncoming cars were going to pass too closely. At least one Iraqi has died in a car accident with Georgian convoys, soldiers said.

The Georgians expressed pride in their new mission and concern for the poverty of the local Iraqi civilians. The soldiers distribute rice, beans, cooking oil and water, and meet with local leaders in Wasit.

"Every day they're coming to the camp, saying, 'Please help me, please help me,' " Capt. Koba Sergia said. "I'm surprised by how they live, because they live so very poorly. They drink water that kills people every day."

In their corner of Iraq, however, the soldiers see relatively little violence, and many are optimistic about the country's prospects. "Everybody here is trying to help the Iraqi government and population to overcome this last couple of years, and it's being done, it's being done well, and while you are a part of it it feels very good," said Maj. Zaza Kvaraia, executive officer of the Georgian brigade.

But the politicians have also spoken in Georgia, and by next summer, they plan to cut their country's contingent to 300 people. Like many of the troops interviewed from a number of countries, Kvaraia was careful not to express his opinion about this decision, though his future was likely to be affected by it: "Military people don't talk about politics," he said.


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