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Troops Poised to Relieve Marines

Military forces from 21 countries will assume responsibility for the south-central region this week. Coalition officials will have final authority.

August 27, 2003|Chris Kraul | Times Staff Writer

DIWANIYAH, Iraq — In a relatively modest but welcome bit of relief for American forces, troops from 21 countries including Spain, Poland and four Central American nations will begin taking over duties from U.S. Marines in south-central Iraq this week.

The changeover involving about 10,000 fresh troops comes as President Bush renews efforts to enlist more countries' help in Iraq, hoping that last week's bombing of the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad will motivate heretofore reluctant allies to take part in shoring up security.

But the soldiers taking over this week are not an immediate response to Bush's call. Rather, they are fulfilling promises their nations made months ago to contribute forces to the coalition assembled by the United States and Britain.

Nor will their arrival augment the military presence in Iraq, where anti-coalition attacks and other violence are showing no signs of letting up. Instead, the foreign forces will simply replace troops that have been here for months.

The 1,300-strong Spanish contingent will formally relieve U.S. forces, including troops from the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, on Thursday. They will be joined at their base in this rice- and date-growing town 100 miles south of the capital this week by 1,200 troops from Honduras, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua and El Salvador, all of whom will be under Spanish command.

"Our mission is fundamentally to establish stability and security in the region and help civil authorities, governors and mayors to carry out their duties and also help as much as possible in the reconstruction of Iraq," said Spanish Army Gen. Alfredo Cardona, the contingent's commanding officer.

Over the weekend, Spanish forces in desert fatigues were busy fixing up the base here, which was abandoned by the Iraqi army in 1991.

In addition to constructing a helicopter landing pad using asphalt and gravel, the troops are preparing a field hospital for the foreign contingent, clearing old Iraqi tanks out of a repair bay and making neglected dormitories habitable.

Cardona's command will work to secure Iraq's south-central area. Poland, which is sending 2,400 troops, will assume overall command of the region next week.

Other large manpower contributors include the Ukraine, with 1,700 troops.

A number of U.S. troops will remain in the zone, and final authority rests with the U.S.-led coalition authorities.

Spain has 2,000 troops on peacekeeping missions in Afghanistan, Kosovo and Bosnia. But the decision to deploy troops in Iraq has not been without controversy.

Debate in Spain's legislature last month over sending troops here hurt the standing of President Jose Maria Aznar, who has decided not to run for reelection next year.

Technically, the Spanish legislature has authorized the troops' presence here only through the end of the year.

Nevertheless, officers say they have the backing of their citizens.

"I feel I have the total support of the Spanish people. One thing is the political struggle at home, and another is this sort of spirit which we feel not just from the Spanish people but the news media as well," Cardona said.

The success of the new U.S. initiative to persuade more nations to contribute troops may depend on a proposed United Nations resolution that would offer greater international legitimacy to the occupation of Iraq.

But passage of such a resolution may depend on the U.S.-led coalition ceding control over foreign troops either to a U.N. command or to the countries sending them, something the United States has resisted. French and Arab diplomats have said such a vote also might depend on whether the United States agrees to a timetable for coalition withdrawal and the restoration of Iraqi authority.

The Spanish presence involves two battalions, about 360 vehicles and four helicopters, all of which were moved in through Kuwait. Troops spent four or five days in Kuwait acclimatizing to the 110-degree temperatures before heading north into Iraq.

The region to be taken over by the foreign troops is one of sharp contrasts. Earlier this month, the Polish turf was redrawn to return about 385 square miles in a volatile area near Baghdad to American control. But the territory still includes cities that have been the site of attacks on U.S. forces in recent weeks.

The Spanish, meanwhile, are assuming command of a two-province area that has been relatively quiet since Saddam Hussein was deposed. It consists mainly of Shiite Muslim towns whose residents were oppressed by Hussein and who have seemed to welcome the change in regime.

Yet the Spanish know the job ahead will not be easy. After initially receiving warm smiles from residents, the troops saw their compound rocked last week by 19 mortar rounds. No one was injured. The Spanish sent out units against the attackers but captured no suspects.

"That was healthy," said Lt. Col. Valentin Gamazo. "We know we are not on holiday. This is not the beach."

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