updated 3/19/2004 1:48:29 PM ET 2004-03-19T18:48:29

President Bush’s prized “coalition of the willing” — the three dozen countries that are contributing military forces in Iraq — appears suddenly to be losing some of its will.

First Spain said it was getting out, then Poland threatened to leave early. On Friday, the South Korean Ministry of Defense announced that it will not send its troops to the area of Iraq that U.S. commanders had requested, although it said it would position them elsewhere in Iraq.

The coalition may not be crumbling, but neither is it gaining the political traction that the Pentagon had hoped for as it tackles the difficult task of finding fresh forces for the Iraq mission in 2005 and beyond.

On Friday, the national security adviser to President Aleksander Kwasniewski said the Polish leader told President Bush that Polish troops will stay in Iraq “as long as needed, plus one day longer.”

Those comments came one day after Kwasniewski said Polish troops might leave Iraq months earlier than planned and that Poland had been misled over Iraq’s suspected weapons of mass destruction arsenal. Kwasniewski pledged to keep the troops in Iraq in a phone call by Bush to mark the anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, the adviser, Marek Siwiec, told reporters.

Multinationalism central to U.S. strategy
A key element of the Bush administration’s strategy for Iraq is to put an international face on the military force that is not only helping rebuild the country but also to trying to snuff out a resilient insurgency.

That strategy is meant to counter the charge by critics that the administration took a unilateral action in attacking Iraq, and that it has failed to garner sufficient allied support in the war’s aftermath.

It’s possible, of course, that security conditions in Iraq will improve so markedly over the remainder of this year that a military force much smaller than the current one of about 140,000 will be required. In that case the United States may not need additional allied troop contributions.

But if the insurgency persists or gains ground, then any slack in coalition contributions — as suggested by Spain, Poland and possibly South Korea — may have to be made up by deploying even more American forces.

Marine Corps Gen. Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in an Associated Press interview Thursday that there are now about 115,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, plus about 24,000 coalition troops. Nearly half of the coalition contribution is from staunch ally Britain.

Pace said it was too early to conclude that Spain will follow through on its pledge to withdraw.

“It’s not clear that Spain will withdraw,” he said. The new government has indicated “there are conditions under which they can stay, and that would be up to their sovereign government to make their decisions.”

Spain’s Prime Minister-elect Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, who gained office in an election held just three days after terrorist train bombings that killed 201 people in the Spanish capital, said Wednesday that the U.S.-led occupation in Iraq “is turning into a fiasco.” He said he will pull 1,300 Spanish troops out of Iraq unless the United Nations takes control of military mission.

Condoleezza Rice, Bush’s national security adviser, said in a CNN interview Thursday it was up to the Spanish government to decide whether to end its role as a key American military ally in Iraq.

“Whatever they decide about their forces in Iraq, that’s up to the Spanish government,” she said.

Poland’s Kwasniewski had said Thursday that his country might pull its 2,400 troops out of Iraq early next year, about six months ahead of schedule. Polls show about half of Poles are opposed to involvement in Iraq. Kwasniewski said he was misled by Bush administration assertions before the war that Saddam Hussein had threatening stockpiles of germ and gas weapons. No such weapons have been found.

Rice upbeat
Kwasniewski’s comments were the first by a Polish leader to raise doubts about the intelligence behind Washington’s decision to go to war and the latest signs of a weakening of support for the war among coalition members. He tempered his remarks by stressing that Poland has not intention of abandoning its role in Iraq, and said Iraq was a better place without Saddam.

Speaking Friday on CBS’s “The Early Show,” Rice dismissed concerns that Spain and Poland may withdraw their troops from the occupying coalition.

“I think we’ve made great progress in one year. We have a timeline that’s sometimes a little bit ambitious as Americans, but the truth of the matter is that Americans, when they begin a job they intend to stay and finish the course,” she said.

Secretary of State Colin Powell, at a news conference in Baghdad, Iraq Friday, said he thinks the coalition “is still strong.”

“And many nations since the Spanish comments have reinforced their commitment to this effort,” Powell said. “This is not the time to say , ’Let’s stop what we’re doing and pull back.’ It’s time to redouble our efforts ... and not run and hide and think it won’t come and get us.”

S. Korea could be problematic
White House spokesman Scott McClellan on Thursday would not comment directly on Kwasnieski’s remarks.

“Poland is a strong ally in the war on terrorism and we appreciate their strong support,” McClellan said. “They reaffirmed they stand with us in the war on terror.”

South Korea’s announcement, which had not been foreseen in Washington, may be more problematic.

U.S. commanders had counted on South Korea to send about 3,600 troops to the Kirkuk area of northern Iraq, to be part of a multinational force led by the U.S. Army’s 1st Infantry Division. Without the Koreans there, the Pentagon might have to find another U.S. ground unit to fill the gap.

A Defense Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said, “We value South Korea’s contribution in fighting terrorism as we value the contributions of the more than 90 countries that have joined the coalition in fighting terrorism. It is up to each country to decide what type, duration and scope of support it may provide the coalition.”

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