US scrambles to bolster Iraq coalition

Secretary of State Colin Powell called dozens of foreign leaders to bolster backing for the year-old US-led occupation, rattled by the planned pullout of Spain and Honduras and a threat by Thailand to follow suit.

US officials played down the first cracks in the Iraq coalition, but Powell said he was calling on the foreign ministers or heads of government of every other country in the 34-member coalition to gauge their commitment.

“I am getting solid support for our efforts, commitments to remain and finish the job that they came to do,” Powell said at the State Department, describing his conversations after meeting with top EU diplomat Javier Solana.

Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini reiterated Rome’s strong backing for the US-led coalition in Iraq.

During a visit to the Washington he said Italy’s 3,000 troops in Iraq would remain there despite threats by insurgents to kill three Italian hostages unless Italy pulls its soldiers out.

Powell lauded Frattini’s pledge of support, which came just a day after Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi vowed to keep his country’s troops in Iraq until it returns to self-rule.

The White House has firmly denied the occupation is fraying after a wave of fierce fighting and kidnappings in Iraq. “The coalition in Iraq is strong,” said White House spokesman Scott McClellan.

Spain said Sunday it would withdraw its 1,432 personnel from Iraq, prompting Honduras to follow suit with its 368 troops.

Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra said his country’s more than 400 troops would be pulled if the situation became too dangerous, and The Dominican Republic has said it also may pull its 300 soldiers out of Iraq early.

The US has some 135,000 troops in Iraq, backed by 25,000 soldiers from other countries, but is facing a deepening security problem, while struggling to nail down details of a return to Iraqi self-rule by July 1.

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