Coalition partners scale back Iraq troops


VIENNA, Austria (AP) – The Italians have left, and the Slovaks are about to. Britons want to start getting out, and so do Danes and South Koreans.

President Bush’s plan to send 21,500 more troops into Iraq has not inspired America’s coalition partners to follow suit. Washington’s top war partners – London and Seoul – are looking to draw down their forces, and they are not alone.

U.S. forces in Iraq, which now number 132,000 and would swell to 153,500 under Bush’s strategy, are supported by 15,857 mostly non-combat troops from 25 nations.

In the months after the March 2003 U.S.-led invasion, the multinational force peaked at about 300,000 soldiers from 38 countries – 250,000 from the United States, about 40,000 from Britain, and the rest ranging from 2,000 Australians to 70 Albanians.

American forces have always shouldered most of the burden and suffered most of the casualties in Iraq. The worst violence has raged in Baghdad, the provinces of Diyala and Anbar and other areas where the U.S. is confronting sectarian violence and a Sunni insurgency.

Some say there is little point in boosting forces in the largely Shiite south, where most non-U.S. coalition troops are concentrated. Yet as more countries draw down or pull out, it could create a security vacuum if radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr stirs up trouble there.

Italy, once the third-largest partner with 3,000 troops in southern Iraq, brought the last of its soldiers home last month.

Now Britain, America’s chief ally, hopes to cut its 7,000-member force in the southern city of Basra by several thousand in the first half of the year. Prime Minister Tony Blair is preparing to announce a withdrawal of about 2,600 soldiers, the Financial Times reported Friday.

“As for the future shape in the coalition, there continue to be coalition forces operating in Iraq,” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Thursday in Washington. “The South Koreans, the Japanese, others have re-upped their forces again to continue operating in Iraq. And there is a NATO training mission for officers in Iraq. And so, I think you’ll continue to see that kind of international support.”

Fact check: South Korea, the current No. 3 contributor, plans to halve its 2,300-member contingent in the northern city of Irbil by April, and is under pressure from parliament to devise a plan for a complete withdrawal by year’s end.

And Japan has not “re-upped” yet, though news reports Friday said the Japanese government was considering extending a special law that authorizes the deployment of its 600-member humanitarian mission for another year.

Japan’s military involvement has been unpopular with the public. Some say it violates the nation’s pacifist constitution and makes Japan a terrorist target.

“I feel like it’s going to go in the same direction as the Vietnam War,” said Yoshikazu Nagashima, 57, who runs a trading company in Tokyo. “Japan should withdraw from Iraq. There is no benefit in staying.”

Although Britain welcomed Bush’s announcement that more U.S. troops would be deployed, it has ruled out sending in any additional forces. Australia, with 1,300 troops in and around Iraq, also is “unlikely” to chip in more, Prime Minister John Howard said this week.

Poland has extended the mission of its 900 troops through the end of 2007. But most of the other coalition members that have extended their commitments are small, mostly symbolic contributors. They include the Czech Republic, which has 100 military police in Iraq; Armenia, with 46 peacekeepers under Polish command, and the 40 Estonian infantry serving with U.S. forces in Baghdad.

Latvia also has agreed to keep its 120 infantry in Iraq until year’s end, and Lithuania has hinted it may extend into 2008.

In Romania, however, continued involvement has touched off a bitter squabble between Prime Minister Calin Popescu Tariceanu, who wants the 860 troops home, and staunchly pro-U.S. President Traian Basescu, who refuses to cut and run.

Denmark is also trying to scale back its 470-troop contingent serving near the southern city of Basra. Six Danish soldiers have been killed since the 2003 deployment, and recent surveys show six in 10 Danes want out of Iraq.

Ordinary citizens in Slovakia, which is bringing home its 103 soldiers early next month, know the feeling.

“It’s an American war, and we have nothing to do with it,” said Mikulas Krkolak, a bartender in Bratislava, summing up the souring mood in many coalition countries.

Like many of the other ex-communist former Soviet bloc nations that have sent troops to Iraq, Slovakia has also contributed forces to Afghanistan.

“We are such a small country. Why we should have troops in every corner of the world?” asked Helena Bitovova, 40, a high school teacher. “We want our soldiers home where they belong.”