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Bush’s “coalition of the willing” strained to breaking point

Washington/London — Five years after the invasion of Iraq, the United States is finding it harder than ever to garner international support for military operations in the country, as even staunch allies such as Britain have pulled out much of their forces.

At the time of the US-led invasion in March 2003, only four other countries leant troops as part of the so-called "coalition of the willing," and only Britain contributed significantly.

With France, Germany, Russia and China leading opposition to the Iraq war and blocking the UN Security Council from approving the action, the US-led invasion was never going to gather a huge following.

Only Britain, Australia, Poland and Albania provided initial forces, though a few dozen other governments around the world, particularly in Eastern Europe, supported the invasion.

Former US defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld famously derided France and Germany as "old Europe" for their opposition to the war and said that the center of power in Europe was "shifting" eastward.

While the Security Council in October 2003 did back a multinational force to keep the peace after the invasion, the international community has remained hesitant to provide forces to help in Iraq’s reconstruction.

According to globalsecurity.org, 38 countries have contributed forces at one time or another since 2003, but only Britain in large numbers. Some major leaders who supported the war effort — Spain’s Jose Maria Asnar, Italy’s Silvio Belusconi and Australia’s John Howard – have since been voted out of office.

The United Nations pulled its operations out of Iraq after its compound was bombed in 2005 – the deadliest attack ever on a UN office, killing 22 staff members including the UN’s mission head Sergio Vieira De Mello of Brazil.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in September pledged a renewed commitment to Iraq, but it remains unclear if that will include any UN staff on the ground.

Only 18 countries now remain in Iraq, and of those that stayed most have scaled down their already limited presence amid opposition at home. Poland and Australia are in the process of withdrawing their forces completely, while Britain has reduced its numbers to a small force near the airport in the southern city of Basra.

In Britain, the trauma of the Iraq war is something politicians and the nation wish to forget. But living through what many considered a personal crusade of former Prime Minister Tony Blair has left a lasting legacy for citizens and leaders alike.

The electorate, who protested by the millions against Blair’s support for US President George W Bush and the "coalition of the willing," has grown even more cynical about politics, mistrusting what they are told and showing their disillusionment by staying away from the ballot box.

The Blair government’s credibility gap arose in part from the revelation of a cabinet document drawn up to heighten the threat from Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction – dubbed the "dodgy dossier." That legacy continues to weigh on Britons’ belief in democracy, polls have shown.

Blair’s central claim — based on intelligence information – that Iraq could launch a chemical or biological attack in 45 minutes, has since been exposed as false, and Blair was forced to retract the comment.

Now a Middle East peace envoy, Blair seems to still have some standing internationally, especially in the United States, but his reputation at home is at rock bottom. In Europe, the idea of Blair becoming the European Union’s new president meets with widespread resentment.

For Blair’s successor, Prime Minister Gordon Brown, the Labour government’s association with the Iraq conflict and its previous close alliance with Bush were a handicap when he came to power in June 2007.

As quickly as he could, Brown has ordered a phased withdrawal of forces from Iraq and adopted a cooler style in relations with Washington.

While a keen Atlantic alliance supporter and defender of the "special relationship" between the two countries, Brown has made it as clear as possible that he has scant admiration for Bush’s aggressive foreign-policy style and shares little personal chemistry with the US leader.

With Bush’s term as president up in January and Labour hoping that a Democrat will win the White House, Brown’s central foreign policy problem remains Britain’s commitment to Afghanistan.

Brown has made it clear that Britain is in Afghanistan for the long haul. By the time elections come around, at the latest May 2010, Brown could find that British voters resent all wars – from Iraq to Afghanistan.

With British forces stretched to capacity, voters in Britain are unlikely to hail the long-term fallout from conflicts entered in the name of fighting global terrorism.

DPA with Expatica