BRUSSELS, Belgium – Nearly all of the NATO (search) countries with troops in Iraq have pledged to remain there in 2004 to help stabilize and rebuild the country, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Tuesday.
In an interview with American reporters after two days of talks with NATO allies, Rumsfeld said he was encouraged by allied support for the U.S. effort in Iraq in the face of attacks by insurgents.
He said 18 of 26 NATO member countries — including seven that will formally enter the alliance next spring — have troops operating in Iraq as part of the U.S.-led coalition. They number about 24,000, compared with the 130,000 American troops on duty there.
"Most if not all have pledged to stay on," he said, "to work to sustain their contributions and to not be dissuaded by the fact that there have been some high-profile casualties that have been taken by some of the coalition countries."
He was referring to the slaying Saturday of seven Spanish intelligence officers, as well as the killing of two South Korean workers and two Japanese diplomats in separate incidents on Sunday.
Spain vowed to keep its 1,700 troops in Iraq, and Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi (search) on Tuesday stood by his pledge to send troops to Iraq, even as Japanese media reported that Japan would postpone sending a team of engineers and doctors there. In Seoul on Tuesday, a group of South Korean lawmakers recommended to parliament that both combat and non-combat troops be sent to Iraq.
Among the other NATO member countries with troops in Iraq are Poland, which is leading a multinational division that includes the Spanish contingent, and Britain, which joined U.S. forces in the invasion last March.
Although most NATO countries have contributed to the Iraq effort, some have disappointed the Bush administration. Turkey, for example, offered to send troops but withdrew the offer after Iraq's U.S.-appointed governing body objected. France and Germany object to a larger NATO role in Iraq until the United Nations is given a bigger and more direct role in restoring Iraqi sovereignty.
During a NATO session on Monday, Spain suggested a larger NATO role, perhaps by having the alliance assume command late next year of the multinational division now led by Poland. The United States favors that idea, although it has not yet been proposed officially for a NATO decision.
Throughout his two days in Brussels, Rumsfeld faced questions from Europeans about the U.S. view of proposals in the European Union to establish an office to plan military operations to be conducted under EU auspices. The United States is leery of the idea, fearing it could lead to competition with NATO, which Washington wants to remain as the West's pre-eminent defense group.
In an interview Tuesday with European reporters, Rumsfeld said the United States wants to protect NATO.
"Anyone who wants to change it or tear it down or inject an instability into it has to recommend something better, it seems to me," he said. Later he added, "This issue is something that is going to affect the North Atlantic Treaty Organization — how it's handled — over the coming decades. It is a critically important question," which must be settled by NATO heads of government.
Rumsfeld also held a one-on-one session Tuesday with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov (search). Rumsfeld told reporters afterward that they discussed U.S.-Russian military relations as well as the situation in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, where President Eduard Shevardnadze (search) was forced to resign late last month following civil unrest over parliamentary elections marked by ballot fraud.
Rumsfeld said he raised with Ivanov the United States' desire to have Georgia's territorial integrity respected by all, but the defense secretary would not offer details of their conversation.
Separately, Secretary of State Colin Powell, in a Maastricht, Netherlands speech, criticized Russia for refusing to meet a Dec. 31 deadline to withdraw troops from Georgia and Moldova. Both countries are wracked by separatist movements.
Georgia's new acting president, Nino Burdzhanadze (search), has accused Russia of undermining Georgian sovereignty by supporting two separatist provinces over the past decade and by hosting their leaders last week in Moscow.
Rumsfeld said Ivanov told him there was nothing unusual about the provincial leaders visiting Moscow, since it happens regularly.