Thursday, March 17, 2005

Coalition of the willing dying out

Italy is the latest country to pull out its troops from Iraq due to public pressure. From the Christian Science Monitor:

The US and British governments are playing down a surprise announcement by Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi that Italy will begin pulling its troops out Iraq this fall.

"In September, we will begin a gradual reduction of the number of our soldiers in Iraq," Mr. Berlusconi said on an Italian talk show [Tuesday] night. "We've got to construct a precise exit strategy. Public opinion expects it, and we shall be talking about it soon."

White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said Italian troop withdrawal would not affect military operations in Iraq, pointing out that it "will be based on the ability and capability of Iraqi forces and the Iraqi government to be able to assume more responsibility."

US President Bush's staunchest ally in the Iraq war, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, issued a statement minimizing the significance of Berlusconi's announcement. His official spokesman said:
What's become clear is that Mr Berlusconi's remarks have been misinterpreted.

The future of the multi-national force will depend on the capability of the Iraqi forces, and any withdrawal would be as a consequence of that increasing capability.

The timing would be determined by the increase in Iraqi-ization.

What Mr Belusconi actually said is that withdrawal would depend on the ability of the Iraqi Government to provide adequate security structures. That's precisely the same position as we have.

Many reports suggest that Berlusconi's decision was forced by the public reaction to the killing of Italian intelligence agent Nicola Calipari at a US checkpoint in Iraq. Calipari was killed en route to the Baghad airport after saving an Italian journalist who had been held hostage for months. The incident sparked outrage in Italy, where public support for the government's support of the Iraq war has always been low.

Berlusconi did not link Calipari's killing to the pullout. The White House also denied there was a connection.

But, while the British and US governments played down the significance of Italy's decision, news reports played it up.

The Times of London seems to wonder just how Berlusconi's remarks could have been misinterpreted.

Commentators were struggling to envisage how the statement, seen as further evidence that the alliance of 30 nations serving alongside US forces in Iraq is unravelling, could have been misunderstood.

The Times reported that "Berlusconi was on a collision course with Downing Street [Wednesday] after his surprise announcement on live television that Italy would begin withdrawing its forces from Iraq in September." As the Times points out, "it emerged that Britain ... had not been informed of the Italian Prime Minister's 'exit strategy.' "

Under a headline that reads "Italy joins growing parade of nations quitting Iraq ," the Canadian daily Globe and Mail reports that the "withdrawal will leave only the United States and Britain with sizable military forces," and the newspaper considers that "a major embarrassment to the United States."

The scramble by various nations to get out of Iraq has taken the multinational force from a high of about 300,000 soldiers in the region early in 2003 to 172,750 and falling. About 150,000 US troops shoulder the bulk of the responsibility and suffer the most casualties.

Using the headline "Italy joins rush to pull forces out of Iraq" the Sydney Morning Herald plays up Berlosconi's announcement writing that it "is a blow to President George Bush's hopes of maintaining high troop numbers and a broad coalition of foreign countries in Iraq." The Herald called the decision "a surprise move apparently prompted by intense public opposition in Italy to the war and Mr Berlusconi's hope of retaining power in elections next year."

BBC reports that the Italian press sees Berlusconi's announcement as an election tactic.

Editorials drew comparisons between Mr Berlusconi and his UK counterpart Tony Blair - both
facing upcoming elections, and both facing largely hostile public opinion over military involvement in Iraq.

The leading Milan daily Corriere della Sera says Mr. Berlusconi's decision is aimed at triggering an immediate effect in favour of candidates supporting his centre-right coalition, just over two weeks ahead of local elections in which some 40 million Italians can vote.

The Herald report added that the Italian decision is increasing opposition pressure on Australian Prime Minister John Howard to decrease troop levels. "Everyone else has an exit strategy but us," said Labor's defense spokesman, Robert McClelland. "The Government doesn't even have a mission statement."

In Britain, Mr. Blair is facing similar pressure. The Telegraph reports that Sir Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman, said that it seemed clear Italy had its own "exit strategy" and that Britain should follow suit. "It is time the UK showed a similar resolve. Britain's objective should be to achieve the withdrawal of British forces by the expiry date of the UN mandate which ends in Dec 2005," said Sir Campbell.

The announcement is prompting many British and Australian sources to speculate that soldiers from their countries might fill the gap left in the wake of Italy's departure. "With 3,000 Italians, 1,700 Poles, 1,500 Ukrainians, 1,400 Dutch troops - as well as Polish armored and Ukraine mechanized divisions - pulling out of the south," reports the Melbourne Herald Sun, "defense analysts warn the exodus will have to be covered by British or Australian troops."

The Scotsman reports that "British troops are likely to be asked to fill the void left by the withdrawal of Italian soldiers in Iraq, military experts claimed today. The stop-gap measure could cost the UK tens of millions of pounds."