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A wilting coalition

THE COALITION of the willing is losing its will. Italy just announced it will withdraw its 3,000 troops from Iraq by the fall. The Netherlands, Poland, and Ukraine are also in the process of pulling out or preparing to pull out an additional 4,750 troops.

When Italy's prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, says, ''We have to have an exit strategy," he is not kidding. With the departure of those nations, the coalition will be down to 21 countries. That is a massive cut from the days when the administration boasted the window dressing of 38 fighting countries and nearly 50 total allies (even as the United States accounted for 85 percent of the troops).

President Bush downplayed Italy's imminent abandonment in a press conference this week. Bush said Berlusconi reassured him in a phone call ''that there was no change in his policy; that, in fact, any withdrawals would be done in consultation with allies and would be done depending upon the ability of Iraqis to defend themselves. . . . that's the position of the United States. Our troops will come home when Iraq is capable of defending herself."

This is political satire. Bush has no clue when Iraqis will be able to defend themselves. Last month, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz boasted: ''I have talked to some of our commanders in the area. They believe that over the course of the next six months you will see whole areas of Iraq successfully handed over to Iraqi army and Iraqi police."

This is the same Wolfowitz who said predictions by Pentagon budget specialists that the invasion and occupation of Iraq would cost $60 billion to $95 billion in the first year ''is just wrong." He was right in the wrong way. The first year cost more like $150 billion, and the cost of Iraq and Afghanistan, with Iraq sucking up the vast majority of military resources, is now more than $300 billion.

This is the same Wolfowitz who swore that predictions by one of his own generals that it would take several hundred thousand soldiers to secure Iraq were ''wildly off the mark." We have 150,000 troops there, and there is no end in sight to suicide bombings. This is the same Wolfowitz who at one point did not even know how many US soldiers had died. He said at a Capitol Hill hearing that the United States lost approximately 500 soldiers, 350 of them in combat. The actual numbers were 722 overall and 521 in combat.

This is the same Wolfowitz whom Bush wants to place at the head of the World Bank. Some people should not leave home without American Express. Wolfowitz should not be allowed to leave the country without a calculator.

Italy and other nations are pulling out because Bush has neither calculator nor compass. This week the US Government Accountability Office issued a report that found that any claims of how many Iraqis have been trained as soldiers or cops are almost impossible to prove.

The report said the State Department claimed last month that 82,000 police officers and 60,000 soldiers have been trained and equipped. This is supposed to be on the way to 271,000 forces in the next 16 months. What was that again about Wolfowitz saying hundreds of thousands of troops was wildly off the mark?

But the GAO concluded that ''US government agencies do not report reliable data." It said that both the State Department and the Defense Department ''no longer report on the extent to which Iraqi security forces are equipped with their required weapons, vehicles, communications equipment, and body armor." It said the weak training of many Iraqi soldiers and police officers ''did not prepare them to fight against well-armed insurgents." It said ''many police who were hired remain untrained and unvetted."

The worst part of the report was, ''The reported number of security forces overstates the number actually serving." The Iraqi Ministry of Defense, obviously well learned in the Wolfowitz method of math, excludes the number of soldiers who abandoned the new army in the current chaos. The report says, ''the number of absentees is probably in the tens of thousands."

The report concluded, ''It is unclear at this time whether the system under development would provide adequate measures for determining the capability of Iraqi police." It said the establishing of a serious security force in Iraq faces the challenge of ''questionable loyalty," ''poor leadership," and ''the destabilizing influence of militias." It is, of course, not helping that the United States is setting a poor example of leadership: The military admitted this week that the deaths of at least 26 prisoners in US custody throughout Iraq and Afghanistan are confirmed or suspected homicides.

Country by country, the coalition is wilting from such uninspired leadership from the United States. Once Italy, Poland, Ukraine, and the Netherlands finish jumping ship, the US percentage of the dubious Iraq mission will creep from 85 percent to 90 percent. Italy is pulling out because it sees no exit strategy. The coalition of the willing is no longer willing to accept America's rosy scenario on Iraq. That still is not stopping us from exhibiting yet more poor leadership. It is fitting that Bush nominates Wolfowitz to head the World Bank just as more allies tell us we are wildly off the mark.

Derrick Z. Jackson's e-mail address is

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