Sun, Mar 20, 2005 - Page 6 News List

Bush's `coalition of the willing' fading fast

PULLOUT PRESSURE Two years into the Iraq War, many of the Bush administration's European allies in Iraq are reducing, or removing all together, troops in the country

AFP , PRAGUE

US President George W. Bush's previously faithful and proud European allies are gradually withdrawing their support for his cause in Iraq.

In the space of just a few months, Bush's more faithful allies in central and eastern Europe have one by one begun a complete or partial withdrawal of their troops from Iraq.

Yet, only two years ago, the heads of former communist bloc countries were prepared to brave the irritation of France and Germany, standing firmly at the US' side.

Recognizing the role played by Washington in helping fall of communism, they were sympathetic to the Bush crusade for freedom.

But the Bush administration has remained largely ungrateful for their efforts.

So now even Bulgaria, which orchestrated eastern Europe's support for the campaign against Saddam Hussein, announced on Thursday that it would reduce its presence in Iraq by 100 soldiers at the end of June.

Bulgarian Defense Minister Nicolas Svinarov said his government would examine the question of the withdrawal before the end of March.

The Baltic former Soviet republic of Latvia already reduced its small contingent in November, Hungary has withdrawn all its 300 troops and Poland cut its troops at the time of the Iraqi parliamentary elections on Jan. 30, from 2,400 soldiers to 1,700.

Poland, which controls a zone to the south of Baghdad, predicts that it will recall several hundred more troops from July.

East European governments have played down their decisions.

"This is not a political decision, the contingent's reduction was dictated by practical reasons," Latvia's Defense Minister Atis Slakteris said.

And Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski used the Iraqi elections to claim that a new era had begun for the country.

Anxious to hold on to one of its better allies in Europe, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice quietly accepted Poland's arguments. Less diplomatic was her Danish counterpart Per Stig Moeller, who harshly criticized Poland.

"I think it's simply absurd to say that now that democracy is in place we can leave," said Moeller.

In Hungary the reasons for withdrawal are clear. Socialist Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany could not secure a two-thirds parliamentary majority to extend the mandate.

The conservative opposition refused to give its support, arguing that the large majority of Hungarians opposed the country's presence in Iraq.

And across most of the region opinions have only slightly changed over the past two years in their opposition to a military presence in Iraq.

In Hungary, before the parliamentary vote, 54 percent of people asked supported withdrawing troops compared to just 19 percent who wanted to maintain the troops.

In Poland more than two-thirds of citizens oppose deployment of their soldiers in Iraq against less than 30 percent who are in favor.

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