In a bid to shore up support for the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell appealed Tuesday to Hungary and 30 other nations not to "get weak in the knees" because of kidnappings in Iraq or public opinion polls at home that increasingly back withdrawal of troops.
Powell, on the first leg of a week-long tour of Eastern Europe and the Middle East, compared the challenge of creating democracy in Iraq to the transformation of the former Soviet Bloc and urged allies to fulfill their commitments.
"Democracy is hard. Democracy is dangerous. And this is the time for us to be steadfast, not get weak in the knees," Powell said on Hungarian television. "We must not allow insurgents, those who will use bombs and kidnapping and beheadings, to triumph."
Powell's appeal comes with the first signs of the fraying of the coalition. Five nations -- Spain, Honduras, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua and the Philippines -- have pulled out of Iraq since April, and three more have decided not to renew their mandates when they run out early this fall, according to diplomats from coalition countries.
Others, such as Poland, have indicated they do not intend to stay through the full transition period, scheduled to conclude after elections for a permanent government at the end of 2005.
The growing pattern of hostage-taking has increased pressure on coalition members as well as countries with foreign nationals involved in Iraq's massive reconstruction program. Approximately 70 citizens from two dozen countries have been seized this year, with hostages from India, Kenya, Egypt, Pakistan and Jordan abducted within the last week.
In response to the kidnapping of two employees Monday by a group calling itself the Mujaheddin Corps, a Jordanian company used by the U.S. military said Tuesday that it would stop operating in Iraq. "I am ceasing operations and pulling out from the company's premises in Iraq for humanitarian reasons, and out of my concern for the safety and the lives of my two employees who were kidnapped in Iraq," the head of the company, Rami Ouweiss, told the Associated Press.
In some cases, hostages go free unharmed. Mohamed Mamdouh Helmi Qutb, the third-ranking diplomat at the Egyptian Embassy in Baghdad, reported for work a day after he was freed Monday by the Lions of Allah Brigade. "Thanks to God, we are going to perform our work at the embassy; there is no problem," Qutb told reporters.
Powell's pitch in Hungary was particularly important because some of the most steadfast members of the coalition have been among its 16 former Communist countries, many of which now face a backlash as hostages from the countries are taken or troops are killed.
A public opinion poll conducted in June found that 61 percent of Hungarians surveyed wanted to bring their 350 troops home rather than renew their mandate when it expires at the end of this year. Only 14 percent said they wanted Hungary's force, which in June suffered its first fatality, to remain in Iraq.
Reflecting the growing anti-American sentiment in Europe over Iraq, a recent poll of 34,000 Hungarian young people found greater disdain for President Bush than either former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein or al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
During his visit to Budapest, Powell received the Grand Cross from the government here. In a speech after the ceremony, he invoked Hungary's recent political transformation and called on parliament to renew Hungary's troop mandate, an issue likely to be debated this fall. Defense Minister Ferenc Juhasz said last week that the government's position would hinge on Iraq's internal situation.
Powell acknowledged that the violence in Iraq was more intense than the United States had expected, but he predicted that European attitudes would turn around once the insurgency had been brought under greater control and the political process moved ahead.
Later, in a speech to ambassadors, Powell lauded Bulgaria for reaffirming its commitment to the coalition despite the beheading of two Bulgarian hostages. "It's that kind of courage needed to bring a better life" to people in Iraq, he said.
Powell's appeal for unity came after the Philippines opted to withdraw its contingent of 51 from Iraq to spare the life of a Philippine hostage. The man was subsequently released. En route to Cairo, Powell told reporters that the Bush administration had expressed its disappointment to the Philippine government "very clearly and at very high levels. It has not helped our bilateral relationship."
Powell arrived in Cairo on Tuesday evening to begin a Middle East swing that will also take him to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. In Saudi Arabia, Powell will hold his first meeting with Ayad Allawi since he became Iraq's interim prime minister. At week's end, Powell will return to Eastern Europe for stops in Bosnia and Poland, where he will celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Warsaw uprising against Nazi rule.