TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras – Iraq's multinational peacekeeping force scrambled to regroup Monday after Spain's (search) announcement that it would pull out its 1,300 troops, with Albania (search) pledging more soldiers but U.S. officials bracing for further withdrawals.
Spanish troops will leave Iraq in less than six weeks, Defense Minister Jose Bono said Monday in Madrid, but it remains unclear who will take their place. The 9,500 peacekeepers under Polish command are charged with the south-central sector, where followers of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr are waging a bloody rebellion.
Polish officials said they thought greater United Nations involvement might help wavering countries make new troop commitments or at least follow through with what they have already promised.
"A U.N. resolution would be a great help," Polish Defense Minister Jerzy Szmajdzinski told Poland's TVN24.
Szmajdzinski said Spain's decision caught him by surprise. "We are all working intensively on several variants on how to make up for the leaving troops," he told the Rzeczpospolita daily. "Perhaps we will have to reorganize the division."
Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, the top U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, sought to allay fears about the implications of the Spanish pullout, saying there would be no "security vacuum in that area at any time."
"Numerically those are numbers (the Spanish contingent) that should be able to be replaced in fairly short order," Kimmitt said.
President Bush scolded Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero for the abrupt withdrawal, telling him in a telephone conversation Monday to avoid actions that give "false comfort to terrorists or enemies of freedom in Iraq."
"The president urged that the Spanish withdrawal take place in a coordinated manner that does not put at risk other coalition forces in Iraq," White House press secretary Scott McClellan said.
Poland has the most troops, 2,400, in the 23-nation force, and Szmajdzinski said it could not send any more.
But Albania immediately said it was ready to increase its presence. At the moment Albania's commitment is mostly symbolic, consisting of 71 non-combat troops patrolling the city of Mosul under U.S. command.
Ukraine, Australia, Portugal, Slovakia, San Salvador and the Dominican Republic said their commitments to the force would not waver.
Honduras' 370 troops have been serving in Najaf under Spanish command, a situation that was thrown into doubt when Spain announced its pullout plan.
The Honduran president's withdrawal announcement came hours after military spokesman, Col. Rafael Moreno said that his country's forces would remain in Iraq under Polish command.
But Maduro said in a national television address that "I have told the coalition countries that the troops are going to return from Iraq."
The president said the soldiers would return home "in the shortest possible time and under safe conditions for our troops."
Honduras had planned to withdraw its contingent in July as scheduled, but State Department spokesman Richard Boucher suggested it might pull out earlier.
Dagoberto Rodriguez, a Maduro spokesman, said later that "the troops will leave Iraq before July," but he didn't give a date.
San Salvador's 380 troops in Iraq will remain, and serve under Polish command, the Salvadoran military said Monday.
Zapatero announced the pullout just hours after his Socialist government was sworn in, fulfilling a campaign promise. Spain is the third-largest contributor of troops to the multinational force and the sixth-largest overall in Iraq.
Zapatero had initially pledged to remove the troops if the United Nations did not take political and military control of the situation in Iraq by June 30. In making his announcement to remove them as soon as possible, Zapatero said there were no signs the situation would have changed enough to satisfy Spain by that deadline.
His decision was a setback for the Bush administration, which has been eager to portray the effort in Iraq as an international cause even though it is dominated by 130,000 American troops.
Aside from the U.S. and multinational forces, some 12,000 British troops and 2,700 Italians operate in the far south.
Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi said that with Spain's withdrawal "we can take advantage of the fact that we are now considered the closest ally in continental Europe to the United States, which is the only world superpower," the ANSA news agency reported.
However, European Commission president Romano Prodi, Berlusconi's predecessor as Italy's leader, praised Spain's decision, saying the move could help mend the rift in Europe over the war as well as increase pressure to resolve the Iraqi crisis.
"Spain with this decision has come back to our line," said Prodi.
Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said he spoke with Spain's ambassador to express his disappointment and worried that if other countries followed Madrid's example, "then Iraq would be left without security and Iraq would become a haven for terrorists."
Portuguese Prime Minister Jose Durao Barroso, whose country has 128 police officers in Nasiriyah, said his government's position "won't change ... despite any difficulties which may arise," said
Ukraine, the second-largest contributor of troops to the international sector with 1,650, also said its plans were not affected.
Slovakia's president-to-be Ivan Gasparovic, who once opposed deployment of his country's soldiers to Iraq, told The Associated Press the threat of worldwide terrorism now justified their presence. Slovakia has 105 soldiers in Iraq, most of them working in de-mining, and has said it remains committed to staying in Iraq.
"Would it be better to withdraw from Iraq and leave free hands to terrorism and leave defeated or prevail and do everything possible to stop terrorism from spreading?" Gasparovic asked.
In Tokyo, meanwhile, top Japanese military officials said Monday that greater U.N. involvement would make it easier for Japanese troops to carry out their humanitarian mission.