Iraq military coalition withers

Britain’s decision to bring half of its 5,000 soldiers home from Iraq by spring is the latest blow to the U.S.-led coalition. The alliance is crumbling, and fast: Excluding Americans, the multinational force was once 50,000 strong – by mid-2008, it will be down to 7,000.

1st Squadron, 40th Cavalry

U.S. Army soldiers from 1st Squadron, 40th Cavalry rest before they patrol with members of the Concerned Local Citizens Group and Iraqi troops in Hawr Rajab, a predominantly Sunni area of southern Baghdad, Iraq on Tuesday. Photo: AP

President Bush, facing opposition to the war from the Democrat-led Congress, also is paring back. He says he is committed to gradually reducing the American force from its current peak of 168,000 soldiers to just over 130,000 by next summer.

U.S. troops already are stretched thin trying to contain Sunni Arab and Shiite Muslim extremists. But defense experts say the shrunken coalition probably won’t make much of a difference because most of the non-U.S. forces have largely stuck to non-combat roles

This is a U.S. and Iraqi coalition – nothing more and nothing less,’ said Anthony H. Cordesman, former director of intelligence assessment at the Pentagon and now an analyst with the private Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

‘A British withdrawal and that of other countries really doesn’t matter very much. They’re playing a very limited role,’ he said Tuesday.

What’s certain is this: The alliance has withered dramatically since its peak in the months after the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003.

At its height, in the months after Saddam Hussein was toppled, the multinational force numbered about 300,000 soldiers from 38 countries – 250,000 from the United States, about 40,000 from Britain and the rest ranging from 2,000 Australians to 70 Albanians.

By January of this year, though, the combined non-U.S. contingent had dwindled to just over 14,000. As of Tuesday, it stood at 20 nations and roughly 11,400 soldiers.