Iraq violence tests coalition unity

Coalition members have said they will remain, but face increasing public pressure at home.

Growing number of hostage-takings and increased violence on the ground is shaking the coalition of the willing in Iraq.

When the United States went to war a year ago, a key selling point was that it would be an international effort. If even some of the 40-plus countries now offering military and humanitarian assistance pull back, it could prove a profound setback to US efforts to restore calm - as well as American intentions to hand political power to Iraqis by the end of June.

The majority of coalition members have sent small numbers of troops, support personnel, or humanitarian workers to help in the war. Most have reiterated their commitment to holding firm. But as the fighting escalated steeply in recent days, many seemed to be withdrawing from the fight, rethinking their position, or simply hunkering down in a defensive posture.

• Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has vowed to keep his nearly 550 noncombat troops in Iraq, but the taking of three hostages last week - still being held at this writing - has shaken public support for the deployment, the first of its kind in postwar Japan.

• Opposition members in Ukraine have called for the withdrawal of troops after fierce fighting last week killed one soldier and forced a withdrawal from the southern city of Kut. US forces regained control of Kut over the weekend.

• Thailand, with 443 troops in Karbala, said it would remain, but reserved the right to reconsider.

• The newly elected Socialist government in Spain has vowed to withdraw that country's 1,300 troops from Iraq unless the United Nations takes control of security and reconstruction.

The result could be an even more exclusively US operation. The loss of coalition allies could also portend deeper reliance on "mercenaries" - civilian contractors some members of Congress want to control better.

"It has gotten very lonely in Iraq," says retired Air Force Col. Sam Gardiner, referring not only to other countries who have sent troops and support personnel but also to local members of the coalition.

"Iraqi security forces were supposed to be the main element of the coalition. Where have they been? The new Iraqi Army was at Falluja, but it did not, or would not, go into the city. Police disappeared; some even joined the Sadr militia," says Colonel Gardiner.

Several members of the Iraqi Governing Council, upset at what they see as the heavy-handed US response to insurgent activities, have threatened to leave the council. This could undermine the US plan for council members to form the beginnings of a new government when sovereignty is turned over on June 30.

In an unofficial way, the coalition includes many of Iraq's neighbors.

"Although their support is muted and often limited to allowing logistics operations to flow through their countries, Kuwait, Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and even Syria plus the Gulf States are all providing significant support to the US-coalition operation in Iraq," says retired Navy Capt. Larry Seaquist, a former Pentagon

strategist. "Each of those governments must be feeling a chill up their political spine right now," says Captain Seaquist. "None want their people - the Arab 'street' - out in the streets demonstrating in sympathy with their Iraqi brethren. Loss of support by these governments could be equally as serious as the uprising inside the country."

The attacks on coalition forces, as well as several kidnappings of foreigners in recent days, seem aimed at shaking the will of coalition partners.

"If the insurgency drags on and the allies continue to take casualties, we will have to watch carefully the reactions of the governments and publics in allied countries," says retired US Army officer Michael Peters of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Leaders in some coalition countries, Japan, Poland, and Italy among them, have asserted their continuing support. But they are under pressure at home.

A recent Associated Press poll found that nearly two-thirds of people in Japan believe that the war in Iraq has increased the threat of terrorism worldwide. The same poll found that most people in Britain, Canada, France, Italy, Germany, Mexico, and Spain hold the same belief.

In his trip to Japan and South Korea this week, Vice President Dick Cheney will try to buck up those key coalition members - particularly South Korea, where troop deployment to Iraq has become a key issue in upcoming parliamentary elections.

South Korea has about 460 medics and military engineers in Nasiriyah and plans to increase its troop levels to 3,600.

Some observers say the best hope is for coalition military forces to remain, but for them to come under a UN mandate and report to the UN Security Council.

"The advantage of transforming the military component from a US to a UN mandate, which would require a new UN resolution, is that it might induce countries to stay in, stay involved, and attract new contributions from those who have declined so far, such as India, France, and Germany," says retired US Army Col. Dan Smith. "I don't think a separate force to protect UN workers, as the administration has proposed, will work because it would complicate the command structure as happened in Somalia and as is happening in Afghanistan right now."

Others don't put much hope in the UN playing a strong role in securing peace, reconciliation, and reconstruction.

"Fanciful notions about the UN taking over founder on its weak performance in past conflicts," says military analyst Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute.

"In a sense, America is on its own," says Dr. Thompson. "It is the only country with the military resources and resolve to see this through."

Despite increased levels of fighting, some observers think too much can be made of coalition unity.

"No one has left the admittedly rather weak coalition yet, and hunkering down is something we've been inclined to try ourselves at times," says analyst Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution. "So I'd counsel against excessive angst about the coalition."

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