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Iraqi Coalition at a Juncture - 2004-08-26

Terrorist attacks, kidnappings and growing military costs have pushed several U.S. allies to withdraw their forces from Iraq. Whoever wins the presidential election will face a difficult task of keeping the “coalition of the willing” together and bringing in new partners to share the burdens of Iraqi reconstruction.

Spain withdrew its 13 hundred soldiers from Iraq following a deadly terrorist attack in Madrid last March. The Dominican Republic, Nicaragua and Honduras did the same. The Philippines announced its withdrawal to win the release of a civilian hostage. Even Poland, after Great Britain America’s most resolute ally in Iraq, has started talking about reducing its contingent. During a recent visit in Washington, Polish Prime Minister Marek Belka refused to discuss details but hinted his country’s commitment is limited. "I guess no one wants to stay in Iraq forever," he said. "We discussed how the situation in Iraq develops and how it shapes the character and size of our presence in this country."

Poland pledged to keep its 25 hundred soldiers in Iraq at least till the end of the year. But analysts are asking whether the "coalition of the willing" is falling apart? Michele Flournoy, a senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, says it is "both fragile and at a critical juncture." She adds, however, that with the right diplomacy things could get better in the future. "If the security situation does improve, if the UN is able to take a more active role, if there were a change of the American administration and a new president made the request," says Ms. Flournoy, the coalition might become stronger again.

Not everybody believes the U.S. led coalition is in trouble. Nile Gardiner, a Heritage Foundation specialist in Anglo-American relations, says that despite recent desertions the coalition remains strong and able: "It is important to bear in mind that there still remain in the country 23 thousand international forces, and in addition several thousand more are due to arrive from South Korea, which will boost those numbers. Also, of course, there are over 20 nations from Europe represented in the coalition, including 16 of the 26 NATO member states and 11 members of the European Union." Mr Gardiner concludes that the coalition remains quite sizable by any standard.

But Simon Serfaty, another senior adviser at the CSIS, believes the coalition in Iraq in its present form has outlived its usefulness. In his view it "has proved insufficient for the task of reconstruction, rehabilitation and reconciliation of and with the Iraqi state." It is therefore necessary to enlarge and deepen it.

One of the ideas to transform the coalition is to combine stabilization and security functions of foreign troops in Iraq with reconstruction and institution building. This is what Polish Prime Minister Marek Belka had in mind when he mentioned in Washington that the role of his country in Iraq should be diversified. "It should not consist only of stabilization forces but also of training teams and also our experts in institution building." Mr. Belka, who served as Polish economic administrator in Iraq, says he talked about those plans with the Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi.

President Bush recently appealed to NATO allies to share more of the military burden in Iraq. The two main European opponents of the war, Germany and France, largely rebuffed his calls. The Democratic presidential contender, John Kerry, believes his diplomacy could be more effective. But Simon Serfaty of the CSIS is skeptical whether Kerry will manage to bring more foreign forces to Iraq. "I just cannot understand where the senator thinks that he will find those forces," he says. "Militarily, Iraq is a losing proposition at this time. People do not want to go there."

Nile Gardiner of the Heritage Foundation thinks John Kerry's courtship of Germany and France will not only prove futile but may also alienate current allies. "He is more or less pretending that we don't really exist, which I think is going to create a lot of resentment in closely allied countries including presumably Britain, Italy and Poland." Michele Flournoy of the CSIS thinks a new administration may have a better chance to bring in more allies, because "there are countries that just don't want to help this administration because of the way the war began." But she doubts they can make an important military contribution considering their involvement in the Balkans, Afghanistan, and other places.

Some analysts believe that no matter who wins the presidency, the United States will soon try to scale back its military presence in Iraq, provided the security and political situation improves. Others think Iraq will require a significant U.S. and international presence for years to come. Most agree, however, that the next president of the United States will have to convince his allies that a prosperous, peaceful Iraq is everybody’s business.