Great news from Iraq last week. Iran appears to have agreed to become the first member of the Axis of Evil to join the ever-dwindling Coalition of the Willing.

The U.S.-led coalition once included three dozen nations, but in the past year, more than a dozen countries have withdrawn or announced plans to leave. Ukraine and Poland have announced they will pull out by year's end, and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said last week that Italy will begin withdrawing this fall.

So the news Thursday that Iraq and Iran have reached an agreement -- the precise contours were unclear -- for Iran to help train Iraqi troops appears to make Iran eligible for inclusion as one of the "willing." After all, a lot of teensy countries made the list while contributing nary a thing.

A State Department spokesman said Friday that "we certainly would encourage Iran to play a positive and productive role in helping the Iraqis, as we are trying to do, to establish a free democratic system and to build a prosperous and peaceful country."

There was some chatter that Iran has offered to train Iraqi police and military personnel before and may have done some training of Iraqi diplomats. No doubt the Iranians would not want to be formally inducted into the coalition and would just help out on a bilateral basis.

Well, that's not up to Iran. Washington decides who is in the coalition, and we recall that early on some countries had been admitted as members without even knowing they had applied.

But if Shiite Iran is being helpful -- Sunni insurgents in Fallujah might use a slightly different word -- then maybe North Korea's Kim Jong Il, the other remaining member of the Axis, might want to weigh in. He's surely got some spare troops he could ship over to train the Iraqis.

Perhaps it should be renamed the Coalition of the Willing and Evil?

Ailing Envoy

Meanwhile, where's Zal? Seems our man in Baghdad, Zalmay Khalilzad, was supposed to be sworn in as ambassador a few weeks ago -- before the Iraqis cozied up to the Iranians. But the week before last, he was briefly hospitalized with a respiratory ailment, we hear.

And last week, he was back in the hospital to have his gall bladder removed. Unclear when the swearing-in will be.

North to Alaska Preferred Over Amtrak

Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta, who has been making waves of late blasting Amtrak, was in the Great North last week touting the virtues of the Alaska Railroad.

"The Alaska Railroad," Mineta said in a speech at the snappy depot at Anchorage airport, "has developed an innovative service that has made it the only passenger railroad in the nation that doesn't require operating subsidies."

But Amtrak, he said, was a "disservice to riders and to taxpayers nationwide" that every year just "gets in line for another subsidy."

It was Ronald Reagan's Welfare Queen meets the Iron Rail.

"Operating" is the operative word. The boutique Alaska Railroad, all 600 miles of it, does indeed get subsidies -- more than $100 million in the past five years and more than $372 million since 1996. It is just that the money is for infrastructure, not for operations.

Amtrak -- which, unlike Alaska Railroad, carries only passengers, not more lucrative freight -- gets a whopping $1.2 billion in subsidies, a Transportation Department spokesman said Friday. Much of that goes for operating expenses.

Of course, the chronically ailing Amtrak, which most everyone agrees has got more problems than you can shake a stick at, travels over 22,000 miles of track in 46 states, with 300 passenger trains a day carrying about 25 million passengers a year. That's slightly larger than the half-million who ride the Alaska Railroad, and two-thirds of them, Anchorage Daily News columnist Beth Bragg wrote, "rode on cruise [ship] company rail cars."

Bragg bashed Mineta for using the Anchorage depot -- built with $28 million in federal dollars -- as a backdrop. The "airport-to-Seward train schedule is set by the cruise industry," she noted, and the train makes three round trips a week during the 16-week summer season. Then it is basically empty for eight months a year.

The Anchorage depot was picked "as a convenient meeting place" during Mineta's trip to Alaska, spokesman Robert Johnson said. And despite the substantial differences, "what the Alaska railroad shows is one model for how a reformed system with federal money can meet intercity passenger needs in a state or region."

Maybe next time Mineta could stand in front of a picture of a deserted Midwest depot?

Pentagon Chatter

Chatter continues that Pentagon types are looking at ultra-savvy media consultant Dorrance Smith, former executive producer of ABC News's "Nightline" and "This Week With David Brinkley" and former media affairs chief in Bush I, as a replacement for Lawrence Di Rita as top Pentagon spokesman.

Smith spent nine months in Iraq as a senior media adviser during the reign of viceroy L. Paul Bremer. Di Rita would stay on in a senior post to advise Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.

Help Wanted: Guide for Baghdad's Hot Spots

Resume Alert! Know how to drive? Speak a little English and Arabic? Then the Agency for International Development is looking for you to drive the head of the AID mission in Baghdad. You'll be paid $25,000 to $32,000 a year to drive "in a highly controlled but potentially dangerous conflict area." Sometimes you'll "provide guide services to VIP visitors, pointing out and describing places of historical or current interests." Sounds good.