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Iraq: Insurgency In South Puts Strains On U.S.-Led Coalition

The violence in Iraq is testing some members of the U.S.-led coalition. Several, including Ukraine and Japan -- deployed for what they thought would be light peacekeeping or humanitarian missions in southern Iraq -- now find themselves in the midst of an expanding insurgency.

Prague, 8 April 2004 (RFE/RL) -- When Washington invited other nations to join it in stabilizing post-Saddam Iraq, it recognized that many of these nations would be unwilling or unequipped for security duties in the most restive parts of the country.

So while the U.S. military itself took on the job of securing the volatile central part of the country -- the so-called Sunni triangle -- the smaller coalition partners were assigned to secure normally calmer areas in the south and east. Those mostly Shi’a-populated regions were considered supportive of the U.S.-led war that toppled Hussein and generally welcoming of foreign peacekeepers.

But now the insurgency led by mid-level Shi’a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has dramatically changed Iraq's security situation.

The uprising by his militia, the Al-Mahdi Army, has brought clashes with coalition troops in many large towns across the south and east of the country as well as in Baghdad. And despite calls for calm from mainstream Shi’a leaders -- including preeminent cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani -- the violence still shows no sign of abating.

A representative of al-Sadr called today for the uprising to spread further. Ahmad al-Baghdadi, speaking in Al-Najaf, compared the anti-U.S. insurgency to the Shi’a uprising against Saddam Hussein in the wake of the 1991 Gulf war:

"All the Iraqi people are in the Al-Mahdi army -- women, children, and men. We do not fear America. We fought the most dangerous dictator in history, Saddam Hussein. America will remain very small in our eyes," al-Baghdadi said.

Increasingly, smaller coalition partners are saying they can no longer cope with the security situation in their areas. Since fighting with the Al-Mahdi Army began on 4 April, a Salvadoran soldier has been killed in Al-Najaf, a Ukrainian soldier has been killed in the eastern city of Al-Kut, a Bulgarian driver was fatally shot in southern Iraq, and heavy fighting in Al-Nasiriyah left a dozen Italian troops wounded.

Kyiv said yesterday that it has withdrawn its troops from Al-Kut after clashes there. As the soldiers pull back to their nearby fortified base, Al-Kut has become the first Iraqi town from which the coalition has been forcibly evicted.

The Ukrainian Defense Ministry said in a statement that "at the request of the Americans, and to preserve the lives of our military, the commander of the Ukrainian contingent decided to evacuate the civil administration staff and Ukrainian troops from [Al-]Kut."

The top U.S. general in Iraq, Ricardo Sanchez, said today that coalition troops will retake Al-Kut. "[We] are in the process of conducting operations in order to secure the city of Al-Kut. We will retake the city of Al-Kut imminently," he said.

Another major city, Al-Najaf, is also reported to be under the control of the Al-Mahdi Army. Coalition forces have not confronted the militia in Al-Najaf, which is the site of one of Shi’ism's most sacred shrines.

Throughout the week, coalition partners in the south have adopted a variety of approaches for coping with the insurgent threat.

Tokyo ordered its 550-soldier contingent to suspend reconstruction activities outside their base until after a Shi’a religious event on 3 April.

Sofia summoned the ambassadors of the United States, United Kingdon, Spain, and Poland to ask for backup for the 450 Bulgarian soldiers stationed in Karbala, as their base has come under attack several times by militiamen.

General Nikola Kolev, head of the Bulgarian General Staff, said in Sofia yesterday that so far it is not clear when the requested assistance will come.

"The General Headquarters [of the army] has undertaken a lot of measures during the last few days. We declared the need of additional [U.S.] assistance for restoring the order and the control of the province. This assistance has to be ensured through the command structure. So far, there is no clear answer when and what kind of assistance will be re-deployed to our region," Kolev said.

And Kazakhstan said yesterday it would pull its 30 or so troops out of Iraq when their tour of duty ends in May. The government said the troops have been ordered to stay in their camp around Al-Kut until tensions there ease.

Kazakh Defense Minister Mukhtar Altynbaev told reporters in the capital Astana: "We have forbidden our contingent to leave their camp [in Iraq] for the period of unrest. You know, the term of our second group is running out. We have therefore proposed not sending any further contingents to Iraq after this term ends."

Analysts say that many of the smaller coalition partners are well-equipped for self-defense but lack the resources or the desire to engage in urban fighting with insurgents.

Phillip Mitchell is a ground forces specialist at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. He cited the Japanese contingent as an example to underline some of the problems smaller coalition members face.

"As regards the Japanese, they went out very well-equipped, taking both armored personnel carriers and heavy weaponry in order to defend themselves. But that was it; it is purely to defend themselves. So, they are not going to get involved [in urban fighting]," Mitchell said.

Mitchell noted that urban fighting is the deadliest form of combat because fighting at such close range makes soldiers, including those in armored cars, particularly vulnerable even to relatively lightly armed opponents. The United States has deployed helicopters and tanks in retaking Al-Fallujah, resources many other coalition partners do not have at their disposal.

The analyst also noted that the Japanese government -- like that of many other coalition partners -- won parliamentary approval for its Iraq deployment with the understanding the soldiers were on a humanitarian, not a combat, mission.

"The whole reason for [the mission], one of the things that they said when they agreed to send troops out there, was that they would not become involved in any military action against the Iraqis," Mitchell said.

Many of the smaller coalition partners dispatched troops to Iraq to show political support for Washington's goal of rebuilding the country. It now remains to be seen whether they will face increasing domestic pressure to withdraw the contingents if Iraq's security situation deteriorates further. In many of the countries, there was widespread public sentiment against last year's war that could now be rekindled.

Such debate has already begun in Rome, where opposition parties this week called for Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to withdraw the some 2,500 Italian troops in Iraq. Berlusconi rejected that option on 6 April, saying, "It is unthinkable to flee the mission we have started. We would leave the country in chaos."

A number of the members of the U.S.-led coalition are from the former Soviet Union, and Central and Eastern Europe.

They include Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, the Baltic states, Georgia, Hungary, Kazakhstan, Macedonia, Moldova, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and Ukraine.

Georgia yesterday dispatched a contingent of 159 soldiers to Iraq to be based in the northern city of Tikrit for seven months. An earlier 70-man contingent returned in February after seven months in central Iraq.