US risks losing coalition if it expands war targets

Talk that the US may eventually strike at Iraq raises concerns about allies' support.

Afghanistan's Taliban government was a friendless regime before the United States commenced airstrikes against it this week, and that hasn't changed as American bombs and missiles continue to hit targets there.

Yet, while the international coalition the US has assembled is holding firm, that could change once the US moves beyond a reviled regime to other countries it accuses of harboring terrorists.

The test case that will try the resolve of countries is Iraq, many experts believe.

The US has hinted at no specific action beyond its current mission in Afghanistan, but a letter it presented to the United Nations this week, warning that military action against other countries may be necessary, was enough to touch off speculation.

Military action against Iraq would be a very different story, leading many observers to dub the initial air campaign in Afghanistan the easiest chapter of a long and complex war. Furthermore, some of the hottest anti-US demonstrations in the wake of this week's strikes are in Indonesia - the world's largest Muslim country, where terrorist groups linked to the Al Qaeda organization, the US's prime target, are known to operate.

Yet Indonesia and other Southeast Asian countries with Islamic extremist groups - including the Philippines and Malaysia - are friends of the US, which means counterterrorist action there would be very different from what is hitting Afghanistan.

For now, even Britain, America's closest ally in the war's initial phase, is hinting the fight should stick to Afghanistan and its terrorist-guest-in-residence, Osama bin Laden.

As the military campaign sets in, a coalition that is global but actually very thin when it comes to military action is indicating that the Bush administration's design for international support was right on target, some experts say. That design has essentially been to leave most countries on the sidelines as moral cheerleaders, while the US carries out the search-and-destroy missions almost alone.

"This is a coalition of variable geometry, where at the outer limits nothing more is expected than broad political approval and where for the moment only the US and Britain are involved in the actual military operations," says John Chipman, director of the Institute for International and Strategic Studies in London.

Different from a decade ago

This construction makes the coalition very different from the one assembled for the Gulf War a decade ago, Mr. Chipman says, where more than 30 countries participated to some degree in the military campaign.

"In that case, the US was coming to the assistance of many countries in the [Persian Gulf] region who were aggrieved parties," he says. "Here, the US is appealing for support from many of those same countries as it comes to its self-defense."

The US is getting some of the political support it worked hard to rally in the weeks since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. In Egypt, a key US ally, President Hosni Mubarak, declared Tuesday, "We support all measures taken by the United States to resist terrorism." But he also renewed insistence on creation of a Palestinian state.

In Qatar, where the 56-member Organization of the Islamic Conference began meeting Wednesday, delegates resisted Iraqi demands that the conference condemn the US strikes.

Publicly, the US is expressing satisfaction with the support it is garnering, but it is also not pressing governments - especially of Islamic and Arab countries - for any more public show of support than they feel they can give in a delicate situation.

Support among Muslim countries remains important primarily to help the US demonstrate that, as President Bush says, this is not a war on Islam. At this point, the support is relatively painless for many countries to offer.

That feeling may change if other countries are targeted. "The coalition may very well break up as we move on to other other phases," says John Hulsman of the Heritage Foundation, a Washington think tank whose policy analysis broadly parallels that of the administration.

The Bush security team has debated the necessity of hitting Iraq as part of the war on terrorism. John Negroponte, US Ambassador to the UN, visited Iraqi officials there to warn the country not to think it could take advantage of the US focus on Afghanistan to make aggressive moves.

Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Naji Sabri and other Iraqi officials say they take the US warning about further action as indication that the US wants to settle old scores from the Gulf War.

Mr. Hulsman says that although the coalition will begin to splinter if the US moves against Iraq, it shouldn't matter to the Bush administration. "This coalition wasn't built for the sake of the coalition as we've sometimes done in the past. This time, it's the outcome that matters."

Risking isolation

But others believe allies do matter to the US, and that it risks dangerous isolation if it handles matters differently than it is doing with Afghanistan. In this case, the US has presented compelling evidence, coalition members say.

The suspicion of many countries would be that the US was "using the situation to tidy up problems with regimes around the world," London's Chipman says. Europeans worry that any attempt to extend the campaign to Iraq would alienate not only Arab and Muslim states but also key European partners, including Russia - which Bush has worked with particularly closely.

The Taliban's problem is that it has no friends in the global community of nations and manifestly few on the world's streets. "But if the US targets Iraq," Chipman says, "that [friendless] situation wouldn't be the same."

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