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US presses allies to delay Iraq pullouts

Longer tours sought for coalition forces

WASHINGTON -- US and Iraqi leaders are pressing their military allies in Iraq to postpone withdrawing troops, warning against a pullout until the new government is capable of securing the country on its own.

Iraq's foreign minister, on a visit to Tokyo yesterday, urged Japan to delay its plan to withdraw in December 600 military engineers working on water and other reconstruction projects. US and Iraqi officials are urging Poland to postpone the scheduled departure in January of its 1,400 troops, who are overseeing security south of Baghdad.

US and Iraqi officials also are hoping to persuade other nations in the 27-member international coalition to extend their commitments to Iraq. The Bush administration, under pressure at home to outline its exit strategy more clearly, has held up the coalition as a symbol of foreign support for a mission that initially was opposed by the United Nations.

''Militarily, the contingents that are there don't make an enormous amount of difference," said Charles Heyman, a former British infantry officer and a senior defense analyst at Jane's Information Group in London. ''But from a political perspective, they make a huge amount of difference. The White House can point to a 'coalition of the willing.' Their departure chips away at the Americans' ability to project this as a major international effort in Iraq."

About 177,000 foreign troops are in Iraq, the Coalition Press Information Center in Baghdad said yesterday. The vast majority, more than 155,000, are US forces. Britain contributes the next largest contingent, with 10,000 soldiers responsible for security in southern Iraq.

South Korea has 3,200 troops providing logistics in southern Iraq; Italy has 3,000 troops in the southern city of Nasiriyah training Iraqi police and building infrastructure; and 450 Australian soldiers provide security for the Japanese and help to train Iraq security forces.

The rest of the 27 nations that are part of the Multinational Forces are mostly made up of smaller contingents, some as small as a few dozen soldiers. They are either training Iraqis, working on specific rebuilding projects, or acting as liaisons.

The missions of the smaller contingents vary. Azerbaijan has one infantry company, or about 150 troops, on duty in volatile Anbar Province in western Iraq, where the insurgency is strongest. Norway has a handful of staff officers posted with other foreign units. Bosnia and Herzegovina has dispatched three dozen explosives specialists to work under US commanders in the terrorist hotbed of Fallujah.

Their participation in the coalition, while often derided by critics of the war as mere window dressing, has lent added international legitimacy to the US-led mission in Iraq.

President Bush and his top aides repeatedly have cited the international coalition as evidence of support for bringing democracy to Iraq. Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, traveling in Australia earlier this month, said the ''Iraqi people have benefited enormously by having some 25 or 30 countries to participate in the coalition effort."

But the coalition, with 37 countries at its peak, has steadily shrunk amid waning public support and rising violence on the ground -- most notably when Spain withdrew its 1,300 troops last year after Al Qaeda operatives cited the country's presence in Iraq as justification for blowing up commuter trains in Madrid.

Now, Japan and Poland are being urged to reconsider their plans to leave Iraq starting next month -- at least until after the results are tabulated from the election of a permanent Iraqi government on Dec. 15. US and Iraqi officials think the vote will help put the country on a more stable path.

''Because of the sensitivity of the timing and the critical stage we are going through, it is very important for those forces to remain committed," Iraq's foreign minister, Hohshyar Zebari, said at a news conference in Japan yesterday. ''Any premature withdrawal will send the wrong message."

Zebari said that Japan's prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi, assured him that Japan would not abandon Iraq, but that Koizumi did not commit to renewing the troop deployments.

In Warsaw yesterday, Poland's defense minister, Radoslaw Sikorski, told reporters that his country would pull troops out of Iraq in 2006, but left open the possibility that the withdrawal, previously set for January, might be postponed to midyear.

Sikorski said security in Iraq's south-central province, overseen by Polish soldiers, had improved sufficiently to hand over control to Iraqi forces. ''We will certainly withdraw our troops next year," he said, according to Reuters.

The participation of Japan's Self-Defense Forces -- the country's largest overseas deployment since World War II -- has been controversial in the pacifist nation, even prompting a lawsuit against the government by war critics.

Leaders of other countries said yesterday they are also preparing to withdraw. Lithuania's defense minister, Gediminas Kirkilas, was quoted by the Baltic News Service as saying his country's estimated 100 troops will pull out with the Polish.

''We will not send a new rotation of troops to the Polish contingent," Kirkilas said. ''This is related to the withdrawal of Polish troops from Iraq."

At the same time, South Korea's Cabinet approved a plan this week to cut the more than 3,000 South Korean forces in Iraq by one-third. Bulgaria, with an estimated 400 troops in the Polish sector, is also scheduled to withdraw by the end of the year, along with Ukraine's 900 troops, according to wire service reports.

Italy, whose conservative government has been among the most vocal defenders of US policy in Iraq, plans to withdraw 300 troops at a time beginning early next year.

The shrinking of the coalition ''continues to question the credibility of the administration," retired Army Major General William Nash, who commanded the NATO peacekeeping force in Bosnia, said of the waning international backing. ''It has a bigger impact on international politics than on Iraq, but more and more people are challenging American strategy and American conduct. It's hard for many governments to justify to their continued participation."

Bryan Bender can be reached at bender@globe.com.

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