- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 2, 2004

About one-third of coalition troops in Iraq, other than British and American soldiers, have left or are scheduled to be withdrawn after Jan. 30 elections, and remaining coalition members say they will be hard-pressed to fill the gaps.

Troops from the Netherlands and Hungary are to leave in mid-March; Poland — which ranks fourth in terms of numbers — intends to downsize its troop force; and Italy — the third largest troop provider — may not extend its present commitment, which ends this month, by more than three to six months.

The moves will reduce the multinational force on the ground by almost 2,200 troops by the end of March, bringing the total number of international soldiers who will have pulled out since the start of the war to just over 5,000 — about one-third of the coalition effort not including American and British forces.

Most coalition members say they will not decamp even if the security situation deteriorates, but decisions on troop deployments often rest on parliamentary votes, not executive decisions.

U.S. government officials are working to continue to build the coalition, said army spokesman Lt. Col. Joe Yoswa in Washington.

“We are working with NATO [and] we continue to have open lines of communication with our coalition partners and others who may want to join us,” he said.

Altogether, 13 countries have pulled out their troops or are planning to leave or reduce their presence. Nevertheless, according to Lt. Col. David C. Farlow of Central Command, coalition force strength after the invasion peaked last month with approximately 25,800 soldiers — roughly 9,000 of them British — with fresh troops from other countries such as Georgia more than making up for the troops that left.

Concrete country-by-country numbers are hard to come by. “We do not provide a comprehensive listing of countries that are supporting the operations there with forces on the ground,” said Col. Farlow, citing security concerns.

Although countries like South Korea and Japan recently joined the effort, other nations appear to be on their way out — using the January election as justification. The departures will increase pressure on allies who have vowed to stick with the United States until the end.

Robert Killebrew, a retired Army colonel who writes extensively on national security issues, said problems caused by the withdrawals would be more political than military, but that there was a risk in relying too heavily and too soon on Iraqi troops and police.

“We seem to be betting on the fact that the Iraqi army and national guard will be able to stand up and be effective as some allies pull out. I think that’s a tremendous gamble,” said Mr. Killebrew. Iraqi police and army have been regularly threatened and killed, and have often fled when attacked.

Col. Yoswa said the Iraqis “improve their own security capabilities” daily. Asked how long it would be until the Iraqi forces could face the terrorist threat on their own, he said: “The situation continues to be dynamic. Every day they get closer, [but] I don’t think you can put a time frame on it.”

Mr. Killebrew believes there will be more, not less, violence after the elections as terrorists and insurgents try to prevent a new government from taking over. As it is, gunfire, mortar attacks, car bombings and roadside bombs are a daily event in the capital.

Apart from British forces, most coalition troops have been serving in a division under Polish command in the central-southern section of Iraq, covering restive cities like Najaf and Karbala. As coalition members leave, pressure is being put on those left behind.

“There’s a limit to what they can handle,” said Robert Jamro, managing director of Polish Exchange, who works closely with Polish officials.

“First the Spanish left, then the Dominicans pulled out. [The Poles] were somehow patching the holes, but at some point we can’t patch all that,” he said.

Hungary has decided to withdraw its 300 troops — which were dealing mainly with transport and logistics for the whole division — forcing remaining troops to reorganize.

An estimated 300 to 500 Polish troops are expected to leave after the elections, and Ukrainian opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko — who may yet win the presidency — has said he would bring home the roughly 1,650 soldiers that country has in Iraq.

“So, at some point, there is nothing under the Polish command,” said Mr. Jamro, who said he expects the status of the multinational division will change. Its members may be incorporated into a U.S. division, he said.

Apart from British troops, the U.S. military has not had to work directly with troops from other coalition countries — all with different mission statements and different languages, uneven training levels and varied cultural approaches.

Under Polish command, the lingua franca, for example, was Russian, followed at one point by Spanish. When the 1,300-strong Spanish contingent left in April, it became even harder to communicate with the small contingents from Latin America, most of whom eventually left.

Another 1,300 troops are expected to leave by mid-March — this time the Dutch. That would bring the total expected to leave in the next four months to at least 2,400. Italy is also considering what to do with its 3,000 troops, whose commitment expires Dec. 31. One Italian diplomat said he expected Rome to renew its commitment for three to six months.

Pro-U.S. European partners say that a lack of concrete recognition by Washington of their efforts for the past two years has fed the exodus. Some countries felt that they should have been offered a greater role in the profitable reconstruction effort.

Seoul, which has been asked to extend its troop strength in the face of stiff domestic opposition, was miffed when President Bush failed to mention its participation in the war effort when he addressed the Republican convention in September.

“It was a minor error by a speechwriter, and a senior official of the administration called his counterpart to explain. But many people are not quite certain that we are duly recognized for such a major contribution,” said National Assembly member Chung Eui-yong.

South Korea is building up its troop presence in Iraq to 3,600 soldiers, which will displace Italy as the third largest contingent after the United States and Britain. The South Korean Cabinet last week agreed to extend the South Korean reconstruction mission in northern Iraq for another year.

The Bush administration has emphasized on the multinational nature of the Iraq war, and coalition partner diplomats are quick to say that they are in Iraq for the Iraqis, not to win concessions from Washington.

“But at the same time, when you work alongside the U.S., and are open to the U.S. viewpoint on the war on terror, you also want to convince your public by showing them that the relationship with the U.S. is two-way street,” said one European diplomat, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

Many participating countries had expected to win more on reconstruction projects or, like Poland, to have visa restrictions waived. Polish citizens need visas to enter the United States, while nationals from France and Germany — which opposed the war and have refused to send forces — do not face the same regulations.

The diplomat said that coalition members may decide to send some forces back to Iraq under a NATO umbrella to train Iraqi forces, changing the profile of their participation.

“We are trying to get more NATO involvement and more EU involvement and build on that,” the diplomat said.

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