US struggles to hold together Iraq coalition

The Philippines is the latest to announce plans to withdraw troops, but other nations, such as Australia, will send more.

The Philippine government's decision to withdraw "as soon as possible" from Iraq in response to threats against one of its citizens being held hostage there is the latest sign of cracks in the coalition the United States is trying to hold together.

Though the Philippines' contingent is small, made up of 51 soldiers limited to what the government calls "humanitarian work," the government's action suggests both the malaise of some coalition members in the dangerous Iraqi environment - and the troubling inroads that insurgents are making with extreme tactics.

At the same time, however, the Australian government of staunch American ally Prime Minister John Howard announced Tuesday that it would soon send extra troops to Iraq - a decision that is already being debated at home ahead of elections expected this fall.

The Philippine government appeared to be trying to use ambiguous statements Tuesday to accomplish two things: the release of a truck driver that kidnappers have threatened with beheading, and preservation of close ties with the US. But withdrawal under any cover would deal a blow to US efforts to enhance the international presence and burden-sharing in Iraq, some analysts say.

"Even with the handover of authority and the United Nations' rubber-stamping of the American effort with a new resolution, a country like the Philippines is not willing to supply even nominal support anymore," says Dan Plesch, an analyst at Birkbeck College of the University of London. "We're seeing a lack of confidence."

The Philippines had already been set to withdraw its troops by Aug. 20, but any sign of weakening or bowing to insurgent pressures would not be welcomed by the US government. The US has close ties with the Philippines and supplies substantial military assistance, including in the government's counterterrorism effort against its own Islamic extremists.

Signs of trouble within the coalition have grown ever since the new Spanish government of Prime Minister José Luís Rodriguez Zapatero pulled out its contingent last month, calling Iraq a "disaster."

Some governments, like those of Italy, South Korea, and Japan, have adamantly stuck to the coalition effort, despite kidnappings, demonstrations at home, and - in the case of South Korea - the beheading by insurgents of a citizen.

The unpopularity of Iraq involvement with home audiences has hit a number of governments. Over the weekend, the government of Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi suffered a surprising electoral setback for reasons that analysts say included both domestic issues and the government's insistence on keeping 550 troops in Iraq.

Last month the Italian government was buoyed by the release of three Italian hostages in a coalition raid, but the success was tarnished by claims of Italian aid workers that a $9 million ransom was paid for the hostages' release. The Italian government denied any ransom was paid, but the new Iraqi government has recently called on foreign governments and organizations in the country not to pay ransoms that would only invigorate the insurgents.

With constituencies often opposed to the war, governments are increasingly stuck between sticking with the US and the Iraq project, and responding to pressures at home. The added discomfort for the Philippines is that its troop decision is now embroiled in the question of Iraq's insurgency and whether any action taken now looks like appeasement.

"It's understandable why countries would want to reassess the presence of their troops given the uncertainties about genuine international involvement and the authority of the Iraqi government, but unfortunately it can look now like giving in to terrorists," says Hurst Hannum, an international affairs specialist at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. "In the case of the Philippines, if they pull out troops because of a terrorist threat it looks especially hypocritical, given their own problems with terrorism at home."

If the government is trying to use ambiguous statements to win a hostage's release - saying on the one hand it will withdraw as soon as possible, but on the other that it doesn't represent a change from earlier plans - that's not likely to work, says Mr. Hannum. "The ambiguity would certainly be seen through by the terrorists, so there's no way to see playing that game as a positive thing," he says.

Hannum says the US is running up against the reality that public support for the Iraq war was never strong anywhere in the world, and its efforts at coalition- building are now confronting that. Pointing to countries like Poland, whose government has a force of 2,500 troops in Iraq but is saying in a preelection environment at home that it hopes to wind down that presence by early next year, Hannum says: "It's another example of public support that was never there."

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