Two years after the invasion of Iraq, the international coalition of nations that ousted Saddam Hussein - which once numbered more than three dozen - has shrunk to about two dozen. Italy has announced it will begin withdrawing its troops from iraq in September if security conditions permit. Ukraine and the Netherlands are initiating phased withdrawals, while Poland and several others are scaling back troop commitments. But even as the coalition becomes smaller, there are signs that the broader international community is rallying behind efforts to stabilize and assist a democratic Iraq.
This month's accidental shooting deaths of an Italian intelligence officer and a Bulgarian soldier by U.S. troops have challenged the unity and cohesiveness of the coalition in Iraq. For nearly two years, coalition forces have endured wave after wave of terrorist and insurgent attacks, as well as the distrust or, in some cases, the outright hostility of some segments of the local population.
Last week, President Bush paid tribute to the coalition and the sacrifices that have been made.
"We are more secure because Poland is leading a 15-nation multinational division in Iraq, and forces from 23 countries have given their lives in the struggle against terrorists and insurgents in Afghanistan and Iraq," the president said. "Our allies in the war on terror are making tough decisions, and they are taking risks. And they are losing lives. These countries have proven themselves trusted friends and reliable allies."
But the coalition continues to shrink, with Ukraine and the Netherlands the latest to begin pulling out their combined 3,300 troops. The trend is unfortunate, according to military and foreign policy analyst Michael O'Hanlon at Washington's Brookings Institution.
"What we would have liked to see by now, obviously, is a larger coalition, more foreign presence. And we've lost the ability to develop that positive momentum," he said.
One nation that is actually increasing its troop commitment in Iraq is Australia - in part to compensate for the Dutch withdrawal. In a VOA interview, Australian Ambassador to the United States Michael Thawley says his government is more committed than ever to the coalition's mission since witnessing Iraq's January elections.
"Those elections were a real inspiration. And no one who watched those Iraqis going to the polls, with all of the difficulties that they faced, could help but be really impressed by the commitment of Iraqis, and the sense of opportunity that they felt, that they, for the first time, were going to be able to decide their own futures," he said. "And I think, for all of the countries in the coalition, and certainly for Australia, I think that brought home to us what a significant change had taken place in Iraq, and underlined how right the decision was to go in the first place."
The most publicized withdrawal to date was Spain. There, in the aftermath of last March's horrific train bombing in Madrid, voters elected a socialist government committed to bringing Spanish troops home. The Bush administration did not conceal its displeasure with the decision. Spain's ambassador in Washington, Carlos Westendorp, tells VOA that relations between Washington and Madrid were "turbulent" - but are much improved today.
"Now the positions are unanimous. All of us have to help so that the situation is stable in a democratic Iraq - and a democratic Iraq also in a democratic area. We really, firmly support the U.S. policy of the broader Middle East," the ambassador said.
Asked if the formation of a democratically-elected government in Iraq makes it easier for Spain to take part in efforts to aid and stabilize the country, Ambassador Westendorp said "absolutely" - and pointed out that Spain has canceled some of Iraq's staggering foreign debt and will help train Iraqi security forces outside the country.
Spain's limited re-engagement with Iraq - even from afar - could be a sign that, while the coalition diminishes in size, some elements of the broader international community want to play a role in consolidating Iraq's nascent democracy.
"This is not a popular war, and it's very clear it isn't popular," said Anthony Cordesman, an analyst at Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies. "In most of the countries that have sent troops, the population simply doesn't want them to be there. The alternative aspect of this, however, is that everybody understands how strategically important Iraq is, how critical it is to the stability of this area, how important its oil is, how critical it is simply to defeating this broad ideological Islamic extremism."
Mr. Cordesman says nations that have refused to send troops to Iraq can do something equally important: help spur Iraq's economy and boost reconstruction and development efforts. What remains to be seen is whether current statements of support for Iraqi democracy translate into meaningful expenditures and concrete actions in the months to come.