U.S.-led multinational force could see some desertions after Iraqi elections

BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) - President Bush's "coalition of the willing" in Iraq isn't quite so willing any more, even though its largest members - Britain and Italy - are standing firm.

In a blow to U.S. efforts to keep countries from deserting the multinational force, Hungary said this week it won't keep troops there beyond March 31. The Czechs plan to pull out by the end of February, the Dutch soon afterward. And Japan is feeling pressure to withdraw.

There could be even more troop pullouts after Iraq holds elections in January and nations feel their obligations have ended. The United States has about 142,000 troops in Iraq.

"We should never have sent troops to Iraq. Bringing them back now is already too late," said Janos Fekete, a Budapest shopkeeper.

Key allies said this week their troops were staying. Britain said Hungary's decision would not prompt a withdrawal of its 8,500 troops, and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said his country's 3,000 troops would remain for as long as the Iraqi government wants. Berlusconi said it was part of Italy's duty in "defending democracy in the world."

Denmark said its 501 troops in the southern Iraqi city of Basra will stay as long as needed, and Romania is considering bolstering its 730-member force for the elections.

Nevertheless, Hungary's announcement that it won't keep its 300 non-combat soldiers in Iraq beyond the end of March dealt a blow to the coalition.

The ex-communist country and many of its neighbors have been steadfast in their commitment, in part out of gratitude for U.S. support during the Cold War and help in joining the European Union and NATO. Early last year, Hungary declared it would stay in Iraq through the end of 2004 as a message to the insurgents targeting U.S.-led forces.

Hungary's new prime minister, Ferenc Gyurcsany, says he doesn't believe in pre-emptive war and has been receptive to public calls for a withdrawal. Polls show 60 percent of Hungarians want them home now.

"The intention of our government is to bring back our troops and complete the mission," Gyurcsany said Thursday.

Parliament next week will debate his proposal to extend the troops' mandate, which expires Dec. 31, by three months. But that requires a two-thirds majority vote, and the country's main opposition party has said it will consider an extension only if the troops are given a U.N. mandate.

"Right now, we feel there are more arguments in favor of bringing the troops home," Mihaly Varga, an opposition leader and former finance minister, told The Associated Press.

If lawmakers reject the extension, which seems likely, Hungary's troops could be on their way home by New Year's Day.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher played down the threat of significant drawdowns or pullouts. The Bush administration has worked to preserve and expand the coalition since Spain withdrew its 1,300 troops this year.

"It's too early now to start predicting a mass exodus or departure," Boucher said. "There are a number of countries that have stepped up. There are number of countries going down ... We have always felt that the situation on the ground should determine how people stay and how they work."

Later Thursday, he announced that Georgia was boosting its troop deployment in Iraq, from 159 to 850, to provide security for U.N. officials.

"The United States warmly welcomes this deployment," Boucher said. "It underscores Georgia's commitment to partnership with the people of Iraq and their friends around the world in pursuit of peace, prosperity and democracy in Iraq.

For many Japanese, mourning the beheading of a 24-year-old Japanese backpacker slain by militants in Iraq, the situation is simply too dangerous.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has been beset by calls for a pullout of his country's 500 troops, with the opposition blaming his pro-U.S. policy for the slaying. Koizumi hasn't said whether the forces will extend their aid mission beyond mid-December.

Lawmakers in the Czech Republic voted Thursday to keep 100 military police in Iraq through Feb. 28, but Czech leaders have made it clear they see the Iraqi elections as a logical end to their commitment.

Bulgaria said this week it may "slightly reduce" its contingent of 480 infantry soldiers next year. The Netherlands said its 1,400 troops will finish their mission in March. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania all plan to stay through June.

Dutch Defense Ministry spokesman Joop Veen said the country is pulling its troops mainly because it has paid its dues. "We think that other countries who didn't have forces in Iraq should pick up the responsibility," he said.

Portugal's 120 police in Iraq are set to end their current tour Nov. 12. The government was expected to decide Friday whether to keep them there, and Foreign Minister Antonio Monteiro hinted that it would.

"Are we going to give Iraq a chance at sovereignty, or are we going to say 'no' and leave them at the mercy of people with guns?" Monteiro asked.


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