Is 'coalition' unravelling as rampant violence daunts Allies?

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American military commanders and the US political leadership face the daunting prospect that its so-called "coalition of the willing", which was bound together to stabilise Iraq, is showing signs of rapidly disintegrating.

American military commanders and the US political leadership face the daunting prospect that its so-called "coalition of the willing", which was bound together to stabilise Iraq, is showing signs of rapidly disintegrating.

The fast-spreading violence since last weekend, particularly in Shia cities in southern Iraq that were previously calm, has exposed the inability or unwillingness of troops from other countries to engage in battle. Units from countries such as Bulgaria and the Ukraine have either withdrawn to their bases or called on US support.

"The coalition is beginning to weaken," said retired Air Force Colonel Sam Gardiner. "Singapore troops returned home this week. Norway has said it is going to focus on peace-keeping in other parts of the world."

The increasing fractures in the coalition present unpalatable new challenges to American military commanders as they come to terms with sending US soldiers to new areas of Iraq that they had expected to leave in the care of troops from other countries. It also complicates multiple dilemmas already faced by President George Bush as new domestic polls show support for the war in Iraq beginning to weaken.

It is certain to become yet more difficult for President Bush to persuade countries that already have troops in Iraq to keep them there and to find other governments willing to fill the gaps. This is happening at a time when the White House's strategy to increase the roles in Iraq for both the United Nations and Nato is making little or no headway.

There are about 26,500 non-US soldiers in Iraq, provided by almost 40 other countries. About 8,700 are provided only by Britain, however. The US has about 110,000 and the Pentagon has already been forced to postpone plans to send some home in rotation as the military situation continues to worsen.

Many governments in the coalition are confronting increasing political pressure to back out of Iraq. Their efforts to insist to voters that their soldiers are in the country not so much to fight but to carry out humanitarian missions are becoming less and less tenable.

New polls showed that a slim majority of Americans disapprove of President Bush's handling of the war. "Opinion is very fluid right now," said Carroll Doherty, editor of the Pew Research Report. "There's a sense that things are perhaps spinning out of control and that's a very dangerous perception."

A comparison made between Iraq and Vietnam by Senator Edward Kennedy continued to find echoes. "It looks like Vietnam without the jungle," said Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia. "If this continues I don't think Bush can be re-elected."

Incidents in recent days that have highlighted the fragility of the coalition included a hasty withdrawal by Ukrainian troops from bases in the city of Kut on Wednesday. One Ukrainian soldier was killed. The city was retaken by US forces yesterday.

Also on Wednesday, American commanders had to send troops to the holy city of Karbala to back up Bulgarian troops, who were under ferocious attack. In other areas, the uprising sent Japanese and South Korean forces back to their bases for protection.

Leszek Miller, the Prime Minister of Poland, which has the command of a large area of southern Baghdad, acknowledged this week that the violence was changing the politics of staying by America's side. "When people see dramatic scenes in which soldiers are killed, there will be more pressure for a pullout," he said.

Tony Blair will travel to New York and Washington next week for talks with Kofi Annan, the UN secretary general, and President Bush, amid an atmosphere of deepening crisis. High on the agenda will be forging a UN resolution defining a broader role for the organisation in Iraq that could make it easier for other countries to keep troops in Iraq. However, this will be hard to negotiate and is unlikely to surface for many weeks.

In London, Jack Straw, Foreign Secretary, acknowledged in a BBC interview that "the lid of the pressure cooker has come off" in Iraq. In a sign of nervousness in the Government, strict restrictions have been placed on ministers speaking publicly about Iraq.