Keeping coalition on track in Iraq

Posted: Sunday, December 07, 2003

WASHINGTON President Bush and his top aides are cajoling, imploring and even sweet-talking allies into staying the course in Iraq after a month of deadly ambushes.

For now, the strategy seems to be working. Allies last week said they would not withdraw troops despite well-organized attacks on Spanish, Italian, Japanese and South Korean forces.

But there are limits to what the president can offer as new incentives to jittery ''coalition of the willing'' leaders who have seen their ratings plunge at home.

''Those who joined the coalition expect certain benefits of being allies. And the surprising thing is how little they have gotten so far,'' said Ivo Daalder of the Brookings Institution.

''In every single one of these countries, public opinion is strongly against the war, strongly against participation in the coalition. Really nothing that the administration can do at this point is going to change the internal dynamic that exists in all these countries,'' Daalder said.

Bush's lifting of steel tariffs calmed trade friction with Europe and Japan. Also defusing tensions is a promise to release 100 prisoners from the U.S. detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and allow some others to get lawyers.

Bush worked the phones last week, expressing condolences to leaders whose countries had lost citizens in attacks in Iraq. Secretary of State Colin Powell and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld tried to mend fences in Europe.

The new, less confrontational U.S. message sounded first by Bush two weeks ago in a speech in London is that success in both Iraq and the terrorism fight requires allies, partnerships and the cooperation of international organizations.

Despite words of reassurance and largely symbolic gestures such as invitations to the president's Texas ranch, the administration has done relatively little to reward its coalition partners: some financial aid to poorer partners such Poland, limited help to Asian nations to pursue al-Qaida linked terrorists, scattered promises of free-trade pacts.

For now, major allies are promising to hold fast despite the attacks that were taking a psychological toll in countries whose citizens were targets.

''Withdrawal can never be an option in the face of terror,'' Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar said as his country mourned the deaths of seven Spanish intelligence officers.

Because the U.S. government is facing soaring budget deficits and Bush increasingly is focused on his re-election, there probably is not much that coalition partners can expect in terms of help financial or otherwise from Washington.

Even Bush's decision on the steel tariffs was driven largely by domestic political concerns.

As for American troops in Iraq, the administration wants to get them home as soon as practical.

It has agreed to turn over authority to an interim Iraqi government by next summer, at least a year sooner than first planned. The administration also now supports larger roles in Iraq for the United Nations and NATO.

Many supporters and critics alike of Bush's Iraq policy say that thousands perhaps tens of thousands more people are needed there, especially civil affairs officers, bureaucrats and translators.

''But I don't know where those people are. And since we haven't got them here, I think we need to start looking fast to our friends overseas,'' said Kenneth Pollack, a former Iraq analyst at the CIA and the National Security Council.

Pollack said Iraqis' patience with American efforts could wear thin, and that U.S. presidential politics could undercut efforts to build a stable Iraq.

So far, promised additional international replacements for U.S. troops are falling far below hoped-for levels.

''Only the most staunch friends and supporters are going to come in at this point,'' said Michele Flournoy, a former Pentagon war planner now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

She favors letting the United Nations lead the political transition process.

She also favors small-scale projects such as helping people rebuild homes damaged in bombings and helping them get their kids to school.

Bush, whose poll numbers rose after his surprise Thanksgiving visit to U.S. troops in Baghdad, is under unrelenting criticism from Democratic presidential hopefuls.

But Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York, a possible 2008 presidential contender, said last week after a visit to Iraq that the issue of going to war ''is water under the dam.''

''We've got to win and we have to establish a stable, functioning Iraq,'' she said. ''That should be the focus of debate in the Congress and in the country,'' she said.

Tom Raum has covered Washington for The Associated Press since 1973, including five presidencies.

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