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Chicago Tribune February 01, 2005

Coalition nations look ahead to exit

By Stephen J. Hedges, Washington Bureau.

Now that Iraq's election has passed, several of the 28 nations in the American-led military coalition intend to withdraw their troops, citing the costs--in lives and money--of operating for nearly two years inside Iraq.

Before the election, some nations had declared it was time to reduce their commitments and rely on the Iraqis to play a larger security role. Now others will be watching closely to see whether the temporary government elected Sunday can make the improvements in stability that would allow more coalition nations to draw down their forces.

The Netherlands, for example, will withdraw all but about 300 of its 1,500 troops beginning March 15, allowing time after the election to lend support.

"Our Ministry of Defense clearly stated that the Netherlands considered the mission done there," said Rear Adm. Michiel Hijmans, the Dutch defense attache in Washington. "We've been there 20 months now, and it's fairly difficult to continue with this operation."

Not all of those withdrawing or cutting back say explicitly the decision was related to the vote. And coalition members aren't the only countries viewing the postelection period as a time for reassessment.

Two key opponents of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, France and Germany, expressed support Monday for the election, and French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder discussed Iraq in telephone calls with President Bush.

According to a French spokesman, Chirac told Bush that the conduct of the election was "satisfactory" and that it was "an important step in the political reconstruction of Iraq."

German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer praised Iraqis for going to the polls and said, "The challenge of putting Iraq on a stable democratic footing is one we must all take on together."

Neither country, however, gave any indication they were willing to send troops to Iraq.

Meanwhile, some coalition nations are packing up, either because they believe the crucial work has been done or because of domestic political considerations. Ukraine has begun plans to withdraw its 1,600 troops, a move backed by the new president, Viktor Yushchenko, whose campaign included a promise to bring the troops home.

In December, 300 Hungarian soldiers left; they had intended to stay through the election but were ordered home early by Hungary's parliament.

Poland, which maintained an important military presence in hot spots south of Baghdad, has decided to cut its force to 1,700 troops from 2,400, and government officials have suggested that more withdrawals could occur. Thirteen Polish soldiers have been killed in Iraq.

"Late last year our government decided to reconsider the number of soldiers in Iraq, and again after the elections, depending on the situation," said Marek Purowski, Poland's press attache in Washington. "The idea is that the Iraqi force and the new elected government should take over."

Even Britain, America's most steadfast ally in Iraq, is looking forward to a time when its 9,000 troops can leave. British Prime Minister Tony Blair told the Financial Times newspaper recently that he is willing to discuss "timelines" for the withdrawal of British troops, most of whom work in the more peaceful south.

"Remember, 14 out of the 18 provinces in Iraq are relatively peaceful and stable," Blair told the newspaper. "Both ourselves and the Iraqis want us to leave as soon as possible. The question is: What is `as soon as possible'? And the answer to that is: When the Iraqi forces have the capability to do the job."

The Bush administration often has cited the international coalition of troops in Iraq as proof of the broad support for the U.S. mission there. About 152,000 U.S. troops are currently stationed in Iraq along with about 25,000 other foreign soldiers, according to a spokesman for the U.S. military command in Baghdad. Nations involved in the coalition include Australia, El Salvador, Estonia, Bulgaria, Portugal and South Korea.

While nations in the coalition have sometimes changed, administration officials say it has remained a steady force whose presence is determined by conditions in Iraq, not a timetable.

Any withdrawal is "mission-driven," said State Department spokesman Steve Pike. "It may go faster, it may go slower, but it's going to be driven, at least from our point of view, by what we do, by what's possible, by results."

For other coalition nations, though, there may be more than the mission to consider. Hijmans noted that the Netherlands also has 500 troops in the Balkans, 4,500 committed to a NATO response force and 750 assigned to operations in Afghanistan. Two Dutch soldiers have been killed in Iraq.

"We have to leave because we're also involved in a lot of operations all over the world," Hijmans said. "We're a small force, and we're really stretched."

John Pike, a military analyst at Globalsecurity.org, said many of the U.S. partners in Iraq who signed on to help after the Iraq invasion in 2003 did not expect operations to last this long.

"I think a lot of these people figured that it was going to be a limited tour of duty," Pike said. "I think they've figured they've done their duty, they've taken their turn and now that they've had elections, let the Iraqis do it themselves."

The departures could be significant for the U.S. troops and other forces remaining in Iraq. They could complicate the task of combating an anti-American insurgency that has demonstrated the ability to strike everywhere in the country.

Many of the foreign troops have been intensely involved in training Iraqi security forces. Their work now will have to be taken up by remaining U.S. and other foreign forces. Britain, for instance, plans to shift about 600 soldiers already in Iraq to take up the training of Iraqi security forces that was being carried out by about 1,100 Dutch troops. It also will dispatch about 200 fresh troops to Iraq.

"The UK remains committed, like the U.S. remains committed, committed until the country is stabilized," said Sam Keayes, a spokesman for Britain's Ministry of Defense. "We will remain there at the request of the government of Iraq."

As for the Iraqi government, officials have been reluctant to discuss the departure of foreign forces until more government troops are trained, an elected government is in place and insurgent-driven violence is reduced.

Interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi spoke recently of a "condition-based" rather than a "calendar-based" withdrawal of U.S. and other foreign forces.

During a pre-election briefing in Baghdad last Friday, Barham Saleh, Iraq's deputy prime minister for national security affairs, said the size of the foreign force in Iraq is directly related to the level of violence by Iraqi insurgents.

"We will be in need for international support for some time to come, because on one hand, we're dealing with a security threat from terrorism, but at the same time we're talking about a tough neighborhood," Saleh said.

"The overall security environment of Iraq would require continued international engagement," he added. "My hope is that after the elections and the formation of an elected Iraqi government the security dynamic will change, and more reliance will be placed on indigenous Iraqi forces."

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Coalition ranks thinning

Following Sunday's elections in Iraq, some nations in the U.S.-led coalition could reassess their troop commitments.

Total coalition forces: 177,300
U.S.: 152,000
Non-U.S.: 25,300

NON-U.S. FORCES BREAKDOWN
Troops in Iraq as of January
Britain 9,000
S. Korea 3,600
Italy 3,085
Poland* 2,400
Ukraine* 1,600
Netherlands* 1,500
Romania 700
Japan 550
Denmark 496
Bulgaria 485
Others 1,884
*Has announced plans to withdraw some or all troops

Countries that have withdrawn troops
Dominican Republic
Honduras
Hungary
New Zealand
Nicaragua
Philippines
Spain
Thailand

Others, in order of troop strength, are: Australia, El Salvador, Georgia, Mongolia, Azerbaijan, Portugal, Latvia, Czech Republic, Lithuania, Slovakia, Albania, Estonia, Armenia, Tonga, Macedonia, Kazakhstan, Moldova and Norway.
Note: Some totals approximate

Sources: GlobalSecurity.org, Tribune reporting, U.S. State Department.


Copyright 2005, Chicago Tribune Company