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Iraq: As Coalition Shrinks, Who Will Shoulder Additional Burdens?

  • Charles Recknagel --> (file photo) The Netherlands has announced that it will withdraw its 1,350 troops from Iraq by mid-March. It's the latest in a string of similar announcements by Washington's allies, including plans by Poland and Ukraine to get mostly or completely out of Iraq over the course of this year. When the troop reductions are complete, how much of the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq will be left, and who will shoulder the additional security burdens?

Prague, 18 January 2005 (RFE/RL) -- As Iraq nears its 30 January elections for a National Assembly and provincial assemblies, more European countries are announcing they are wrapping up their military involvement in the country.

This week, the Netherlands became the latest state to formally announce plans to call home its troops. Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende said yesterday that the Netherlands will pull its 1,350 soldiers out of Iraq on 15 March. The Netherlands joins a list of 14 other countries that have either announced plans to reduce or pull out their forces or have already done so.

Analysts say the shrinking of the coalition force -- which has included some 38 states -- reflects the unwillingness of many governments to keep troops in Iraq when domestic public opinion opposes the deployments. Edwin Bakker of the Netherlands Institute of International Relations in The Hague described the mood in his country.

"In general, we have never been very enthusiastic in joining the allied troops there, but we thought it was our obligation to bring safety to [the Iraqis]. And I think in the course of time we have seen, of course, some attacks on Dutch soldiers, two of them have been killed, and we have seen a worsening of the situation. So, more and more people have started to have some doubts about whether we can really make a difference," Bakker said.

As European states increasingly pull out of the coalition, some commentators say the moves mark the end of efforts by Washington and London to "internationalize" their involvement in Iraq.

Those efforts were intended to mend trans-Atlantic rifts over the invasion of Iraq, which was opposed by France, Germany, and Russia, among others. But the drive to build a coalition also created new frictions as Washington wooed support from new allies, particularly in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

Former British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook wrote on 14 January in the British daily "The Guardian" that recent announcements of troops reductions and withdrawals by Hungary, the Czech Republic, Poland, and the Ukraine are "puncturing [U.S. Secretary of Defense] Donald Rumsfeld's famous boast that he had the support of what he dubbed New Europe."

Many of the nations once characterized as the "New Europe" are among those now announcing troop reductions. Last week, Ukraine said it plans to bring home its 1,600 troops in the first half of this year. In December, Poland said it would cuts its forces by nearly one-third, to 1,700 troops, by February. In November, Hungary said it would withdraw its 300 troops from Iraq by 31 March.

The reductions could leave the coalition in Iraq with just three countries with sizeable deployments apart from the United States and Britain. They are South Korea, with 3,600 troops; Italy, with 3,160 soldiers; and Poland, with the remaining 1,700 troops. Other allies that have said they will remain have from less than 1,000 to just a few dozen troops in the country. They range from Australia to Georgia to Kazakhstan.
Many of the nations once characterized as the "New Europe" are among those now announcing troop reductions.

As more states pull out of the coalition, Washington has appeared to accept the trend by softening its once strong criticism of states that did so. When Spain announced last year it was recalling its 1,400 troops following a change of government, U.S. President George W. Bush told Madrid to avoid actions that give "false comfort to terrorists or enemies of freedom in Iraq."

By contrast, Washington this month sharply rejected any suggestions that Kyiv had disappointed the United States by ending its deployment. U.S. State Department spokesman Adam Ereli told reporters that he rejects "any notion that anybody is running scared in this matter."

Many of the countries wrapping up their military presence have tied their departures to the holding of Iraq's first democratic election at the end of this month. The election for a National Assembly is intended to result in a new interim Iraqi government that has broad domestic support for crushing the insurgency.

But if the election is intended to speed Iraq's stabilization, the run-up to the polls has seen a sharp increase in insurgent attacks. The violence raises the question of how much the shrinking of the coalition will complicate the tasks of the remaining members.

Some analysts say the withdrawals may only marginally change the security situation because they will occur in the least restive areas of the country. The multinational force, led by Poland, is deployed south of the Sunni Triangle, where most of the recent violence has occurred.

Phillip Mitchell, a ground forces specialist at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, told RFE/RL: "The Poles have been operating in a relatively benign environment compared with, let's say, the U.S. in the Sunni Triangle and, indeed, further north in Mosul. So, therefore, I would see their [eventual] withdrawal and perhaps the withdrawal of the Dutch force as being a matter which has some consequence. But the allies in those areas -- either the U.S. or the U.K. forces -- would be able to take over their area of operations with relative ease."

Mitchell said he expects U.S. forces to the north of the multinational force's sector, and British troops to the south, to extend their areas of control to make up for the troop withdrawals.

Mitchell also said U.S. and British officials hope that Iraq's fledgling security forces will grow strong enough in the coming months to undertake increased duties in less restive areas of the country.

Presently, Iraq's security forces number some 150,000. They will face their first major test during the January election as they provide security at thousands of polling stations.

During the poll, multinational forces are to keep out of sight but remain nearby to help if needed.