Defections in coalition are over, U.S. says

Posted in United States | 21-Apr-04 | Author: Brian Knowlton| Source: International Herald Tribune

WASHINGTON - The Bush administration expressed confidence on Tuesday that it had stanched defections from the Iraq coalition after the announced departures of Spanish and Honduran troops and signs that Thailand was wavering.

Secretary of State Colin Powell said that in the days since the new Spanish government announced its planned pullout, he had spoken to ‘‘the foreign minister or head of government of almost every other country in the coalition’’ and was ‘‘getting solid support for our efforts, commitments to remain and finish the job.’’

U.S. officials have said that the loss of Spanish and Honduran troops — totaling fewer than 2,000 — will not be a major military setback. But Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said on Tuesday that planning was under way to allow keeping the American contingent at 135,000, rather than reducing it, and even to add more troops if necessary.

But senior Democrats in Congress and one former U.S. official said the administration stood at a critical juncture. They said it had created some of the problems it now faces by failing to build stronger international support ahead of the war.

As a result, the former national security adviser Samuel Berger told one Senate panel, the United States and Britain were bearing nearly 90 percent of the costs and casualties in Iraq. As congressional hearings on Iraq began, members of both parties said on Tuesday that more must be done to spread those costs.

The White House spokesman, Scott McClellan, said the administration trusted that the remaining coalition members would stay united and that a new United Nations resolution for Iraq might encourage broader participation.

That remains an unconfirmed notion. The Spanish withdrawal was premised partly on a judgment by the new government in Madrid that a new resolution would not give the UN broad decision-making powers in Iraq or call for a UN peacekeeping force.

At one contentious Senate hearing on Tuesday, Senator Edward Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, criticized Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz for arguing at length that Saddam Hussein was deposed partly because he had sanctioned brutality on a ‘‘simply unimaginable’’ scale.

Kennedy called that ‘‘somewhat disingenuous’’ because Wolfowitz had said nothing of the administration’s stated rationale for invasion: that Saddam was thought to have banned weapons that might reach terrorists’ hands. But in an exchange with Kennedy, Wolfowitz denied that he and a small group of administration officials had been so intent on overthrowing Saddam that they had ‘‘dismissed the threat of Al Qaeda.’’

At another hearing, Senator Richard Lugar, Republican of Indiana and chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, criticized the Pentagon for not sending its top officials to answer questions about the planned June 30 hand-over of sovereignty in Iraq. For a year and a half, Lugar said, the administration had ‘‘failed to communicate’’ its plans to Congress and the American people.