- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 16, 2006

Iraq’s coalition of the willing is becoming an increasingly exclusive club.

As U.S. generals and lawmakers debated this week whether to cut, raise or hold steady the 141,000-strong U.S. troop contingent in Iraq, the coalition of foreign countries willing to deploy their forces in Iraq has shrunk steadily — and soon could shrink even more.

Twenty-three countries remain in the U.S.-led coalition and the United Nations’ mission serving in and around Iraq, down from a high of 42 that joined the United States in the invasion or the postwar occupation of Iraq. More than half of those contributors have fewer than 150 troops, engineers or military trainers in the Iraq theater.

Like President Bush, many leaders of the contributing countries are resisting intense domestic political pressures to bring the troops home, especially as the casualty levels rise and the problems of the embattled Iraqi government mount.

“We need to remember what is at stake here, not only for Iraq and the Middle East, but also for American power and prestige around the world,” Australian Prime Minister John Howard said this week. Mr. Howard, a staunch U.S. ally, is scheduled to meet with Mr. Bush on the sidelines of an Asia-Pacific summit today in Vietnam.

Opposition leader Kim Beazley, citing opinion polls showing 60 percent disapproval of Australia’s Iraq deployment, urged Mr. Howard to tell Mr. Bush that Australia’s approximately 1,400 troops in Iraq would be leaving and that the United States should withdraw as well.

“When John Howard meets George Bush, he needs to be a statesman, not a sidekick,” Mr. Beazley told reporters in Canberra.

Mr. Howard rejected that idea, but acknowledged in a speech this week that the Iraq mission was “the most poll-defiant thing I have done in the whole of my prime ministership.”

Portugal, Hungary, the Netherlands and Ukraine were among the countries that pulled out of Iraq in 2005. This year, Japan announced it was withdrawing its noncombat troops from Iraq. Italy, one of the largest contributors to the multinational force, plans to have all its 1,785 soldiers home by the end of the year.

Poland, which was given overall command of Iraq’s south-central region, has cut its forces from 2,400 to about 900.

Smaller parties in Poland’s governing coalition are pressing for a quick withdrawal of the remaining troops. The government of President Lech Kaczynski has sent conflicting signals on how long the deployment will last.

Mr. Kaczynski and senior Polish generals have been quoted as saying that the country will remain in Iraq at least through mid-2007, but a government spokesman said this week that an earlier withdrawal — perhaps by the end of this year — hadn’t been ruled out.

Like Mr. Howard and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Mr. Kaczynski is confronting popular opinion polls that show more than three-fifths of his constituents support an immediate withdrawal.

Many foreign governments say they are closely following the U.S. troop debate and the recommendations to be put forward by the Iraq Study Group, a bipartisan commission led by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III. The panel’s much-anticipated report, expected around the end of the year, could herald a course change in U.S. policy in the region and a shift in troop levels for the United States and its top allies.

Some countries in the Iraq coalition say they are holding firm, despite the political pressures.

Romanian President Traian Basescu told the Associated Press last week that his country’s 600 noncombat troops will stay, despite pleas from the families with relatives serving there.

“Romania’s honor is greater than its feelings,” he said.

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