Why are they leaving Iraq? "They" above all means the Spanish-speaking brigade Plus Ultra. Following Spain, which contributed the core to the brigade, Honduras and the Dominican Republic have announced the withdrawal of their contingents. El Salvador, whose units were likewise sent to reinforce the brigade, has not yet reached a final decision on bringing its soldiers back home, but, as is claimed at the coalition's headquarters, has implied that it may follow suit soon.
Who's next? It cannot be ruled out this will be Poland. Indeed, Warsaw is discussing the matter openly. In Kiev, too, people question the need for the presence of Ukrainian volunteers in the Middle East... The anti-Iraqi coalition is collapsing before our very eyes.
The important thing is to understand why. The crux of the matter is not fear of terrorist attacks like the ones on March 11 in Madrid, nor apprehensions of bloody revenge from al-Qaeda or other extremist organisations preaching and practising terror against the countries that supported the American aggression against Saddam Hussein's regime. It is not even the critical human losses suffered by troops of the "departing states" in the year they stayed on Iraqi soil. The crucial point is the failure of the occupation, the forcible attempt to break the centuries-old traditions of the local Muslim population, regardless of their religious beliefs and ideas. America failed to deliver on its promise in a matter of months to make Iraq a prosperous state, a bulwark of democracy and exemplary law and order in the Middle East. Why then expose oneself to danger?
But even this is not the most unfortunate aspect.
The American operation against Iraq, the stationing there of a 150,000-strong contingent led by Pentagon generals, has greatly compromised the idea of a united front of different states against a new universal threat - international terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. This coalition, which emerged after September 11, 2001, performed brilliantly against the Taleban in Afghanistan. It brought together the US and Russia, the European Union and Central American states, NATO and Japan, the Northern Alliance, and many Arab countries. The point is not whether or not the coalition succeeded in resolving all Afghanistan's problems, but that the coalition became possible because it was united in a just cause.
Unfortunately, the subsequent steps taken by the current Washington administration made nonsense of the good precedent. Rather than concentrate the world community's efforts on ending the activities of international terrorist organisations, the US, bypassing the UN Security Council, unleashed an act of aggression against Iraq, accusing its leadership of developing weapons of mass destruction and sponsoring terrorists. It transpired, however, that Baghdad did neither. And the entire propaganda and military campaign organised by Bush, Jr was directed solely at overthrowing the Saddam regime so hated by the American president and capturing attractive hydrocarbon markets.
Now, proceeding from the grievous Iraqi experience, most states will react to any call to counteract against the terrorist threat with caution. What, they may wonder, if individual states, pursuing their selfish interests, seek to solve their national problems by exploiting the international coalition, and the lives of servicemen from other countries?
One year into Iraq's occupation, the armed struggle waged by the country's Shiite and Sunni population against foreign troops and local collaborators - or rather former unemployed police and servicemen of Saddam's army who came to serve their new masters for a living - has done further and very substantial damage to the global anti-terrorist front. Now it is difficult, almost impossible, to distinguish between genuine terrorism and a legitimate struggle for liberation against aggressors and occupiers.
A mortar attack on Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad, blasts outside police stations in three districts of Basra, an exchange of automatic and machine gun fire in Falluja, where a two-day truce was observed, and so on and so forth - what was the purpose behind these acts with their dreadful casualties? What do they signify?
Can they be attacks carried out by international terrorist and extremist organisations? Or were they part of the struggle to liberate Iraq from occupying troops? There is no answer. Nor can there be, with no consensus on the situation in Iraq not only among members of the anti-Saddam coalition, but even among the Arab states and their governments. As there is no consensus on what is taking place in the Middle East in general at the UN, in NATO or in the European Union. Accordingly, the more cautious governments want to divest themselves of responsibility for what is happening in the Tigris and Euphrates valley; they want to pull out their troops as soon as possible, and have nothing in common with the occupying regime.
Nor can this process be halted by the announced date for the transfer of power in Iraq from the command of coalition, or rather American, troops to the Iraqi Provisional Governing Council. It is clear that the remaining two months before June 30 - when power is to be handed over by a ceremonial act - nothing can change dramatically in Baghdad or its environs. As, indeed, nothing can be altered by the approaching trial of the former Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein. The trial may exercise a slight influence on the election campaign in the US, but not on the situation in the Middle East. Tomorrow and the day after it will remain as unpredictable and dangerous for the occupying troops as it is today.
What can help Washington and its allies? One thing alone: the transfer of responsibility for law and order and the stabilisation of the situation in Iraq to UN peacekeeping forces, where the decisive role must be played, along with American forces, by units from countries that did not take part in the aggression against Iraq. For example, from India, Malaysia, Pakistan or other Muslim and non-Muslim states. And, perhaps, from individual NATO countries.
It is important to convey to Iraq's religious leaders and their multimillion followers that foreign troops are staying in the country on a temporary basis, that their aim is to help the Iraqi leadership to organise a new life based on local traditions and beliefs, rather than to plunder at bayonet point the national treasures in the interests of individual states and governments.