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U.S. steadily losing its ‘willing’ allies in Iraq

The U.S.-led, once-robust "coalition of the willing" in Iraq is now a small number of troops toiling in relative obscurity.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

The commander of the Kazakh soldiers in Iraq, all 29 of them, keeps a stack of English-language instruction books on his desk inside Forward Operating Base Delta. He already speaks Russian, Turkish and Kazakh, and after English, he plans to learn Chinese. He has the time.

Kazakhstan has two main missions here on the geographic and strategic periphery of the war, and both of them could be going better. The Kazakh troops are sappers, trained to dispose of explosives. They were ordered by their government not to leave the base after one of those bombs, nearly three years ago, killed the first and only Kazakh soldier to die in Iraq. The soldiers also run a water purification system but find less use for that these days, too. "It's not necessary," said Capt. Samat Mukhanov. "There is bottled water here."

When asked how he felt about working in Iraq, the commander, Maj. Shaikh-Khasan Zazhykbayev, barked in his thick accent: "Not so comfortable! . . . But we are military. Our government sends us to serve in Iraq, and we are serving in Iraq."

President Bush once called it the "coalition of the willing," the countries willing to fight alongside the United States in Iraq. The list topped off in mid-2004 at 32 countries; troop strength peaked in November that year at 25,595. The force has since shrunk to 26 countries and 11,755 troops, or about 7 percent of the 175,000-strong multinational force, according to mid-November figures provided by the U.S. military.

From 2003 to early 2007, the United States spent $1.5 billion to support the Iraq contingents of 20 countries, the Government Accountability Office reported this year, with about two-thirds of the money devoted to Polish forces. Many nations value the equipment they get from the United States in Iraq and hope their loyalty will be rewarded in the future through help in joining international organizations, for instance.

Some officers here argue that the strength of the coalition cannot be measured simply by the number of boots on the ground. Canada, for example, has no contingent in Iraq but has committed up to $300 million in aid. Many foreign militaries, while not in Iraq for combat missions, perform a wide variety of supporting tasks, such as South Korea's 933 troops, who run a hospital and vocational technology programs in the Kurdish north and arrange for Iraqi university students to visit Korea, said Canadian Maj. Gen. Peter Devlin, who oversees issues relating to the coalition in Iraq.

"There are great strengths that come from multinationality. It brings different cultures, different equipment, different approaches, greater legitimacy to the effort here in Iraq," Devlin said.

But as the war stretches on, the non-American ranks grow thinner. The largest U.S. ally here, Britain, announced in October that it will withdraw half its remaining troops, leaving about 2,500 by spring. Sixteen nations in the coalition, more than half the total, have 100 or fewer troops in Iraq -- five have fewer than 10 people. Latvia has three soldiers deployed in Iraq, Slovakia two, Singapore one.

As with the U.S. contingent, the other countries that are still here often face domestic political pressure to withdraw. Unlike the Americans, they toil in relative obscurity: One platoon each from Macedonia and Estonia patrol the streets of Baghdad buried within American battalions; a few dozen Tongan marines guard the U.S. military headquarters at Camp Victory.

The most nationally diverse military bases, such as Delta and Echo, are in southern Iraq, the predominantly Shiite region that has experienced less violence than Baghdad or the largely Sunni areas to the west. Beyond the Kazakhs, Delta houses troops from Romania, Georgia, El Salvador and Poland. They do not take part in combat operations but man checkpoints, organize reconstruction projects, repair helicopters and distribute food.

But even if these troops never leave the base, they often feel they are carrying out their country's most important and dangerous military mission.

After five rotations in Iraq, the commander of the 13-man Romanian contingent at Delta, Liviu-Costelus Isache, said he has earned a respite and reward.

"I expect good position in city hall," he said.

The Romanian contingent at Delta, part of a force of nearly 500 Romanian troops in Iraq, works inside a narrow trailer papered with aerial maps, tracking the movements of its last functional surveillance drone -- two have crashed, one is missing parts -- on a black-and-white Sony monitor.

The Romanians have flown more than 500 surveillance missions since 2003, including over the Iranian border and in support of nearby Polish troops.

When not in the trailer, they sometimes attend services at a small Orthodox church outside the barracks. In the evening, they gather around the communal television to watch Romanian soccer matches. They miss their families and home towns but consider the assignment valuable for their careers. With reporters, they conspicuously avoid offering opinions about whether their country should leave Iraq.

"I'm not hoping to leave. I'm not dis-hoping. It's a job," said Florin Tudorache, 27. "I wanted to come here, because it's the best way to show that as a military man you're prepared for a fight in any country."

The commander, Isache, seemed convinced that a Romanian pullout is still far off. "Our opinion is this will take a very long time to solve the problems in Iraq. Until the Iraqi conception is changed," he said, "I think our work will be continuing."

Across the base, the commander of El Salvador's 280 troops in Iraq, Col. Jose Atilio Benitez, oversees a mission that frequently sends men off the base. In their U.S.-supplied Humvees, members of the Cuscatlan battalion distribute food and school supplies and coordinate small-scale reconstruction projects. On the way home from one mission to hand out wheelchairs and other goods last month, soldiers detoured on their way back to base after a rare roadside bomb exploded on their planned route.

"It is very dangerous here, it's a very big conflict," one Salvadoran soldier said, though Wasit province is one of the safer areas in Iraq. Over the course of the war, five Salvadoran soldiers have been killed.

"There are people who are against our presence here, and every time there is a casualty, those opponents find ammunition to cancel our mission," Benitez said.

Several Salvadoran soldiers said they found meaning in their mission because they had experienced a 12-year civil war in their country in the 1980s -- during which the U.S.-supported military committed atrocities against civilians -- and wanted to help Iraq escape the same fate.

"Not everybody's going to leave, but they're going to size down," Benitez said of the other coalition countries in Iraq. "But perhaps they haven't lived, in flesh and blood, terrorism like we have."

Some of the foreign countries' contingents at Delta have shrunk -- El Salvador's is about 100 soldiers smaller than its peak; Poland has sent home about 1,500 troops and today has about 900 left in southern Iraq.

But one country is increasing its responsibility. Georgia, a former Soviet republic that wants to join NATO, has sent about a quarter of its army, nearly 2,000 soldiers, to Iraq. The Georgians operate six checkpoints in Wasit, searching vehicles for explosives that they believe are being smuggled from Iran.

Some of the Georgian soldiers live in a small combat outpost near the Iranian border. On a recent trip from Delta to the outpost, a Georgian convoy drove aggressively along a straight, narrow desert road, firing machine guns into the air when the troops deemed oncoming cars were going to pass too closely. At least one Iraqi has died in a car accident with Georgian convoys, soldiers said.

The Georgians expressed pride in their new mission and concern for the poverty of the local Iraqi civilians. The soldiers distribute rice, beans, cooking oil and water, and meet with local leaders in Wasit.

"Every day they're coming to the camp, saying, 'Please help me, please help me,' " Capt. Koba Sergia said. "I'm surprised by how they live, because they live so very poorly. They drink water that kills people every day."

In their corner of Iraq, however, the soldiers see relatively little violence, and many are optimistic about the country's prospects. "Everybody here is trying to help the Iraqi government and population to overcome this last couple of years, and it's being done, it's being done well, and while you are a part of it it feels very good," said Maj. Zaza Kvaraia, executive officer of the Georgian brigade.

But the politicians have also spoken in Georgia, and by next summer, they plan to cut their country's contingent to 300 people. Like many of the troops interviewed from a number of countries, Kvaraia was careful not to express his opinion about this decision, though his future was likely to be affected by it: "Military people don't talk about politics," he said.