Allies grow more willing to withdraw from Iraq

Published February 22, 2007

As President Bush's closest ally, Prime Minister Tony Blair made big news Wednesday when he announced that 1,600 of Britain's 7,100 troops in Iraq will leave in the next few months.

But his wasn't the only such announcement. Denmark's prime minister said his country's entire 460-member contingent will depart by August, and Lithuania is "seriously considering" pulling out its 53 soldiers, a government spokesman said.

That the three countries account for a total of fewer than 8,000 troops illustrates how disproportionate a burden the United States is carrying in a "coalition of the willing" that has always seemed more a "coalition of the semiwilling."

"There was a reluctance to move forward on this war because the international community had a sense that the weapons inspectors should really do their job and we shouldn't jump the gun," said Brian Katulis, an expert on national security at the Center for American Progress in Washington. "As things have gone poorly in Iraq, with the loss of a clearly defined mission and the sense that the Iraqis need to step up to the plate, you'll see our partners falling off."

Even as the United States is sending in 21,000 more troops, for a total of 160,000, Blair said Britain soon would withdraw a fourth of its soldiers as Iraqis take the lead in securing the Basra area of southern Iraq.

Basra relatively quiet

The country's second largest city and its only port, Basra is relatively quiet compared to Baghdad because its population is almost entirely Shiite. While there has been little Sunni-vs.-Shiite violence of the kind seen elsewhere in Iraq, Blair acknowledged that Basra was "still difficult and sometimes dangerous" as Shiite militias battle each other for power.

In addition to the 1,600 British troops leaving soon, another 500 could go by late summer, Blair said. Some soldiers will remain to help train Iraqi forces, protect supply routes from Kuwait and secure the border with Iran.

The White House put an optimistic spin on Blair's announcement, calling it evidence that Iraqis are taking more responsibility for their future. Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy, however, termed it "a stunning rejection of President Bush's high-risk Iraq policy."

The war - which has killed 132 British soldiers - is highly unpopular with the British public. It has been so politically damaging to Blair that he plans to resign this year. Polls show his Labor Party, which has been in power since 1997, trailing the Conservatives.

"As he's heading off into the sunset, Blair is looking at what kind of legacy he's going to leave not only for him but his party," Katulis said, "so he's probably looking to shore up some support" by withdrawing troops.

Blair's government is not the first to suffer from its support of a war now dragging into its fifth year. Italy, Spain and Slovakia have had leadership changes that were at least partly due to voter anger over the war, which Slovakia's new prime minister called "unjust and wrong" as he withdrew 110 army engineers on Feb. 3.

Stark contrast

The dwindling coalition is in sharp contrast to the situation in 1990, when Iraq invaded Kuwait. The first President Bush rallied broad international support that included almost every Arab country. Even Syria, a former Soviet ally, contributed troops.

In 2003, Kuwait was the only Arab nation to take part, although Qatar and others let allied forces use their bases and airspace.

While Iraq was seen as the transgressor in the first Gulf War, "this time there is a very strong perception that Western forces are transgressors of Iraq sovereignty," Dr. Maha Azzam, a Mideast expert at London's Chatham House, said then.

Of the countries joining the U.S.-led coalition, several arguably did so more to stay in Washington's good graces than because they saw Saddam Hussein's regime as an imminent threat to world peace. In many cases, their contribution to the war effort has been modest.

South Korea's 2,600 soldiers rarely leave their base even though they are in northern Iraq, by far the safest part of the country because it is under Kurdish control. Despite heavy public opposition, the South Korean government viewed its mission in Iraq as a way to strengthen ties to the United States and gain support for a peaceful resolution of the dispute over North Korea's nuclear weapons.

Nonetheless, 1,100 South Korean troops will leave by April, and the rest are likely to be gone by year's end.

Of the 22 other countries left in the coalition, may are small and have only a token representation. Albania has 120 non-combat troops guarding the airport in Mosul, a relatively peaceful city in the north. Slovenia has four instructors training Iraqi security forces.

One vocal supporter

Next to Blair, the most fervent supporter of the war has been Australian Prime Minister John Howard, who has deployed 1,400 troops to Iraq since 2003. He recently blasted Sen. Barack Obama, a presidential candidate, for vowing to withdraw all American forces by March 2008.

That "would just encourage those who want to completely destabilize and destroy Iraq, and create chaos and a victory for the terrorists to hang on," Howard said. Obama hit back, suggesting that unless Australia sent another 20,000 soldiers, Howard's words were "just a bunch of empty rhetoric."

As in Britain and South Korea, many Australians oppose the war, and Howard's Liberal Party is slumping in the polls. But as British columnist Gwynne Dyer noted, Australian leaders long ago realized that the United States is the only country that might be willing to come to their aid in an emergency. Keeping the White House happy is an Australian priority.

"If the United States invaded Mars," Dyer wrote, "Australia would send a battalion along to guard the supply depot."

Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at susan@sptimes.com.