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Iraq: Eastern Europeans Lead Wide Backing For U.S.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell says 30 nations have joined with the United States in a coalition against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. It is notable that the largest group of supporters are the governments of countries in Central and Eastern Europe. Why is this the case?

Prague, 19 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell has drawn up a list of nations which he says are joining the United States in a coalition dedicated to a rejuvenated Iraq under a new government.

Powell lists 30 nations in the coalition, and the list has one striking feature. Whereas a number of the countries are widely dispersed and isolated geographically -- for instance, Australia, Ethiopia, and Colombia -- there is a solid block of supporters from Central and Eastern Europe.

The list speaks for itself: Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, the three Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, plus Romania, Albania, and Macedonia. There is also Azerbaijan in the Caucasus, as well as the Central Asian state of Uzbekistan.

The concentration of support in Central and Eastern Europe is too marked to be overlooked. Why is this the case? Professor of politics at Rome's American University James Walston cites historical reasons. "This is a clear reference to the past and to the Cold War and to the image that the United States has and its real role in dealing with the Cold War," he told RFE/RL.

Another senior analyst, Antoni Kaminski of the Institute of Political Studies in Warsaw, suggests that the Easterners are worried about the impact of the Iraq row on the trans-Atlantic relationship. "This is a manifestation of the Central European opposition to placing the trans-Atlantic relationship at risk; this is not so much a question of support for American policy [on Iraq] but rather [an expression of] support for the American presence in Europe," Kaminski said.

Kaminski also said it is a reflection of the worry that political leaders have in the former communist countries about an alignment that includes Moscow, Berlin, and Paris.

Does this mean the bonds between European nations have been notably damaged by the disagreements over Iraq? Most of the Central and Eastern states are set to enter the European Union next year, and will now do so under a cloud because some leaders in the EU have criticized their pro-American stance.

Analysts see the situation as serious, but not permanent. As Walston put it, it's clear that some of the EU newcomers for the moment prefer the United States to France, Germany, and Belgium -- leading European opponents of the U.S. line on Iraq. "It does not say much for European integration; but then the European Union is not itself united on this issue, so you cannot even say that this is going against Europe," he said.

He suggests that once the crisis is over, pragmatic day-to-day politics will repair the links between the European partners.

In issuing this list of 30 nations, the U.S. State Department called it a "coalition for the immediate disarmament of Iraq." But in fact, little unites the participants in this coalition beyond the common statements of support.

For instance, in the case of the Baltic republics, words suffice: there is no actual military commitment. For the Czech Republic and Slovakia, a joint unit of almost 500 noncombatant decontamination troops is the contribution. Poland is sending a contingent of some 200 troops, also noncombatant. And at the other end of the scale, Britain, the U.S.'s main ally, has 45,000 troops, headed by top combat units.

In general, the far larger coalition which fought the first Gulf War against Iraq contributed many more forces to assist the main body of U.S. troops.

Returning to the present, the governments supporting the U.S. line on Iraq are doing so, for the most part, without public support. Solid antiwar majorities exist in both Eastern and Western Europe. That implies a certain risk on the part of political leaders.

"If the war is short and sharp and with relatively low casualties, then the people will accept it. But if the war is long or bloody or messy, then I think it will be very clear that [Italian Prime Minister Silvio] Berlusconi, and [British Prime Minister Tony] Blair and [Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria] Aznar will not be re-elected," Walston said.

With hostilities expected to start soon, the shape of the war should be clear before long.