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Bush Urges Resolve on Iraq

Times Staff Writer

President Bush urged wavering members of the U.S. led-coalition Tuesday to keep their troops in Iraq, but his plea did not win over at least two nations that are considering joining Spain in plans to withdraw their forces this summer.

As the White House downplayed suggestions that its coalition was beginning to fray, Bush lobbied the Dutch prime minister on the issue but won no commitment that 1,300 troops from the Netherlands would remain in Iraq beyond June. At the same time, Honduran officials said Tuesday that they would pull their 370 troops out of Iraq during the summer, and diplomats speculated that El Salvador and Guatemala might follow suit.

Spain’s newly elected Socialist leaders promised this week to withdraw the country’s 1,300 troops from Iraq by June 30 unless they were serving under a new United Nations mandate. Incoming Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero has called the Iraq war “an error” based on “lies,” and his condemnations of U.S. and British war efforts have helped stimulate antiwar public sentiments in other countries.

A new poll showed that two-thirds of Italians favor the withdrawal of their country’s 3,000 troops -- although Italy’s leaders promised to stand pat -- and opposition Dutch political parties called for military withdrawals.

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Although small in number compared with the 110,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, the other nations’ forces are important for giving the war effort an international face; a total of 35 other countries now contribute soldiers. Besides the British, with 8,220 troops, the other coalition members have contributed about 15,000 troops.

Leaders of several coalition nations have expressed concerns about terrorist retribution for their participation in the Iraq war after last week’s commuter train bombings in Spain. A tape said the attack, which killed 201 people, was masterminded by a previously unknown Al Qaeda figure named Abu Dujan Afghani.

South Korea announced late Tuesday that it was boosting security measures because its plan to increase its troop levels in Iraq make it a terrorist target.

In response, Bush on Tuesday argued that the United States and its allies must remain “strong and resolute and determined” in the fight against terrorism.

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“I would remind Dutch citizens that Al Qaeda has an interest in Iraq for a reason,” Bush said after meeting Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende of the Netherlands, which is considering bringing its troops home in July. “They realize this is a front in the war on terror, and they fear the spread of freedom and democracy in places like the greater Middle East.”

As he seeks to reassure allies, Bush planned a special gathering Friday at the White House to speak to ambassadors from about 60 nations that have supported U.S.-led military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Bush said citizens in coalition countries should “think about the Iraqi citizens who don’t want people to withdraw because they want to be free.”

Despite Bush’s efforts, Honduras announced that it would withdraw its 370 troops from a Spanish-led humanitarian and peacekeeping brigade as scheduled at the end of June. The decision was announced by Defense Secretary Federico Breve only one day after Honduran President Ricardo Maduro said the troops would stay.

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Breve said the Honduran decision “coincides with the decision of the prime minister-elect of the Spanish government.”

Honduras sent its troops in August with a one-year commitment. They depend heavily on the Spanish military for logistical support. But the deployment was unpopular at home.

Maduro said Tuesday that, like Spain, he would consider keeping the troops in Iraq beyond the end of June only under a new U.N. mandate -- a requirement being mentioned with increasing regularity by other allies.

Diplomats said it was unclear whether El Salvador and Guatemala, whose troops went to Iraq with the Hondurans and also rely on Spanish military help, would continue their mission beyond June. An official at the Salvadoran Embassy in Washington said she had no guidance from her government; the Guatemalan Embassy did not immediately return calls.

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Officials in Britain, Italy and Poland have insisted this week that they would keep their troops in Iraq, despite the Spanish withdrawal.

Yet the uncertainty over other allies’ course has complicated a week that the White House had hoped would be an affirmation of the U.S.-led coalition’s efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Besides meeting with allies at the White House on Friday, Bush will travel to Ft. Campbell, Ky., to speak on the war on terrorism.

“This was planned as ‘Iraq week,’ ” one official said.

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Dutch officials, who had been expected to extend the mission of their 1,300 troops, are facing opposition at home. The Labor Party, which holds 42 of 150 seats in parliament, called Tuesday for withdrawal of the troops when their deployment ends in July.

The first Dutch death in Iraq was reported Tuesday. A Dutch civilian was one of two European contractors killed in an ambush south of Baghdad.

After his meeting with Bush, Balkenende said Dutch officials would decide the future of their troops. “That is the responsibility of the Dutch government and Dutch parliament, and we’ll talk about it,” he said.

An official of the Dutch Embassy in Washington said later that his country might not make its decision on troops for several months, and emphasized that the government’s choice would depend in part on whether the U.N. was given an expanded role in Iraq.

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“In this process, what is important is the role of the United Nations,” the official said.

The Bush administration has been ambivalent about sharing authority with the United Nations. But in recent days, as the bloody bombings in Madrid have reminded many Europeans of their dislike of the Iraq war, U.S. officials have realized that they need the United Nations’ imprimatur to maintain support from governments.

One U.S. official said the Bush administration was planning a broad effort involving the U.N. to relieve the pressure on governments that have been taking heat because of their military participation.

“That’s one area where we’re hoping to get progress that would make people feel under less pressure,” the official said.

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In Los Angeles on Tuesday, a European Union official also stressed the importance of working out such a resolution.

Pat Cox, the president of the European Parliament, noted that Spanish Prime Minister-designate Zapatero had made it clear that he could keep Spanish troops in Iraq if the United Nations was given a new role.

Diplomats said British and American officials have begun trying to move ahead quickly with such a U.N. resolution.

But several said they saw major obstacles ahead.

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One is the continuing reluctance of U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who is worried about the security of U.N. representatives in Iraq and about having the world body’s neutrality compromised by its need for U.S. military protection.

A second problem is the increasing opposition to a United Nations role from some Shiite Muslim members of the Iraqi Governing Council.

“I’ve never been optimistic about the chances for a new resolution,” said one senior diplomat. “It won’t be easy.”

Times staff writer Evelyn Iritani in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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Iraq coalition

Countries besides the United States that are assisting in postwar Iraq, and their troop contributions, as of March 15:

Britain 8,220 Italy 3,000 Poland 2,500 Ukraine 1,650 Netherlands 1,307 Spain 1,300 Australia 850 Romania 500 Denmark 500 Thailand 451 Other 25 3,722

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Source: Associated Press


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