Dubya’s Iraq Coalition Vanishing Into Thin Air

Sometimes it’s hard to know who your friends are – even if they’re helping you fight a war. President Bush, who hopes to coax more Iraq support from European allies next week, used to boast that some 50 nations had joined the United States in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Today, a public listing is nowhere to be found.

One thing, though, is clear: The coalition is shrinking. “I expect to see the coalition countries begin paring down their forces as they complete their contributions,” Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told the House Armed Services Committee this week.

While a current list of coalition countries – those helping out in Iraq with troops, equipment, monetary or political support – is not easy to come by, there is a public listing of the countries that have actual troops in Iraq. These 20-plus countries, which have combat and support forces in Iraq under the command of Gen. George Casey Jr., make up the multinational force.

Daniel Goure, a Defense Department official in the first Bush administration, said current Bush officials apparently decided to start talking about a “multinational force” instead of a “coalition” to avoid questions about which countries were in or out.

“They’re anticipating what is coming down the road,” Goure said. “It’s an acceptance of the fact that countries are going to be withdrawing.”

Also, by formally listing only the countries that have troops in the multinational force, the administration can avoid identifying countries that don’t want to make their contributions known to the world, Goure said.

Pentagon officials say it’s up to each country to decide what to say publicly. The Defense Department refers questions about the coalition to the White House.

The White House now does prefer to talk about a multinational force, an official there says, meaning countries with troops on the ground in Iraq.

Some countries like Spain, Honduras and the Dominican Republic have pulled hundreds of troops out of Iraq in past months, but other countries want to underscore their contribution. Singapore, for instance, withdrew 160 troops last April, but has deployed a landing ship tank and its 180-member crew to the region for three months.

“Singapore has not left the coalition,” Lynette Cheng, a spokeswoman at the Embassy of Singapore, wrote recently to clarify that country’s contribution in Iraq.

Still, calls to the Defense and State departments, the National Security Council, the multinational force headquarters in Baghdad and the Florida-based U.S. Central Command, which oversees military operations in Iraq, did not produce a comprehensive list of all countries providing equipment, monetary or political support in Iraq.

And even with the list of countries in the multinational force – readily available on the Internet site www.mnf-iraq.com – it’s going to be hard to figure out who’s leaving and who’s staying in Iraq. The last time the list was updated on the Internet was last October. Then it listed 28 non-U.S. military forces contributing to the ongoing stabilization operations in Iraq.

There have been many changes since October 2004.

On Friday, for instance, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice acknowledged The Netherlands’ plans to withdraw about 1,600 troops from Iraq next month. “Of course, we want the coalition to remain as large as possible and people to stay as long as possible,” Rice said at a joint news conference with Foreign Minister Bernard Bot.

Bot said The Netherlands would continue to be active in Iraq and had sent 25 military officers there to help train Iraqi security forces.

Then there’s Ukraine. In October 2004, the multinational force list showed Ukraine as having 1,600 troops in Iraq. Ukraine’s new president Viktor Yushchenko said Thursday in Kiev that withdrawing the nation’s soldiers from Iraq topped the agenda for its cash-starved military. Ukraine’s defense minister said earlier that the contingent could be withdrawn by October.

Last October, Portugal was listed as having 120 troops in Iraq. Earlier this month, these Portuguese police arrived home in Lisbon after completing their 15-month tour of duty.

Similarly, Poland was listed last year as having 2,400 troops in Iraq. During a visit to the White House last week, President Aleksander Kwasniewski said Poland would be reducing its presence to 1,700 this month, while keeping 700 troops at home on standby.

© 2005 The Associated Press