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US diplomatic shift seen on Europe's involvement

WASHINGTON -- The United States is backing away from efforts to pressure European allies to join or remain in the American-led military force in Iraq and instead is working to coax those countries into participating in other initiatives in the region, according to senior Bush administration and European officials.

The shift is occurring after 15 countries -- including Spain, Poland, and Hungary -- have either scaled back their already relatively small force levels in Iraq, announced pullouts, or withdrawn their troops altogether in the past year, despite the growing strength of the insurgency.

Last month, the Netherlands became the latest coalition member to signal its departure, when Defense Minister Henk Kamp reaffirmed that the 1,350 Dutch troops in Iraq would leave by the end of March. Although US forces account for the majority of foreign troops in Iraq, 28 other nations are contributing to the force, most with fewer than 500 troops.

Instead of asking for troops, the United States will try to persuade reluctant European allies to support the larger struggle to bring democracy to Iraq and reform to the Middle East. According to administration officials, congressional aides, and outside specialists, the reason for the reduced US pressure is three-fold:

An acknowledgment by the Bush administration that foreign governments are confronting increasing political difficulty in keeping forces in an unpopular and bloody conflict.

A recognition of the need to move international debate beyond the divisive issue of the US decision to invade Iraq and to work more closely with key allies to diminish terrorist threats common to the United States and Europe.

With few exceptions, the forces of the remaining coalition members are too few to have their departure seriously affect the military balance of power in the fight against the insurgency.

''We're now down to the reality that the only major outside force [aside from the United States] is the British," said Anthony H. Cordesman, a former Pentagon and State Department official who is an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

During his campaign for reelection, President Bush bristled at criticism that the war lacked international support, frequently citing the roster of countries that had contributed troops.

At the same time, US officials have consistently stressed that the long-term solution to Iraq's security problems is to raise and train an Iraqi force capable of containing the insurgency, an exercise that military specialists acknowledge will take years, not months, to complete. Until then, further reductions in foreign forces would merely add to the load already shouldered by US and British troops.

The Bush administration also is throttling back pressure on other countries as it begins to broaden its priorities in the Middle East.

The European Union is also a crucial player in confronting other challenges in the region, including the containment of Iran's nuclear ambitions and ending the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

Germany and France, which have two of Europe's largest armed forces, have refused to send troops to Iraq, but they are contributors to NATO's stabilization force in Afghanistan.

The March train bombings in Madrid that claimed 191 lives and the Nov. 2 murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, both linked to Muslim militants, have helped create the sense in Europe that it has a stake in helping defeat Islamic extremism.

''This isn't a trade-off; it's a transition to a whole different issue," said a veteran US congressional aide. ''The Europeans have woken up to the terrorism challenges we face."

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