IF THE UNITED STATES CAN'T PROVIDE BETTER SECURITY, ITS FRIENDS CAN HARDLY BE BLAMED FOR NOT WANTING TO STICK IT OUT AS TARGETS

ce sweeping across Iraq continues, America's few allies in the country have reason to worry. Italian, Salvadorean, Polish and Bulgarian troops have already come under attack by Shiite militias. More frighteningly, several foreign civilians have been taken hostage by insurgents: three Japanese, whose captors initially vowed to "burn them alive" if Tokyo did not withdraw its 550 troops from Iraq, as well as four Italians, a British contractor, a Canadian relief worker and two Palestinians with Israeli identity papers. By week's end Arab media reported the Japanese would soon be released, but by that time several more foreign contractors had gone missing.

The insurgents seem inspired by the reaction to the kidnappings--including large protests in Tokyo--to test the resolve of Coalition governments. On April 10 one previously unheard-of group even claimed to have taken hostage 30 foreigners of various nationalities. That threat appeared to be bogus, but there is no doubt that Coalition troops and civilians are now among the most vulnerable targets in Iraq. A true wave of kidnappings could well tip the scales for many governments. "If the situation becomes worse," says Koichi Kato, a Liberal Democratic Party legislator, "the Japanese people will begin to question why Japan had to be involved in America's war."

Other Asian allies already have. Kazakh troops have announced that they will return home as scheduled in May--and won't be sending reinforcements. Thailand's Defense Ministry says it may be pulling up stakes ahead of schedule. And Singapore ended its military deployment last week, with no plans to re-enlist.

The frustration even in resolute foreign capitals is mounting as people learn that membership has few privileges. Many Poles, for example, believe their help hasn't led to any tangible benefits for Poland. According to Roman Giertych, leader of the nationalist League of Polish Families Party, partnership with America has amounted to "no economic advantages, all the contracts [for work in Iraq] lost and visa procedures made more stringent so that on the U.S. border we are treated like cattle." Indeed, a growing chorus of opposition parties is calling for the troops to come home. Says political scientist Aleksander Smolar, "Should Poles experience a tragedy, [these parties] may gain additional supporters calling for the immediate withdrawal from Iraq."

Would that be such a bad idea? Other than the Poles, the Italians and the British, who have the three largest contingents of non-American troops in Iraq, many foreign soldiers grumble that security worries make it difficult for them to have much impact. The reason Japanese civilians rather than troops are being taken hostage is because, even before the kidnappings, the soldiers had stopped venturing off their base in Samawa, which is guarded round the clock by Dutch soldiers. Rather than deliver medical relief services, Thai forces have been asking locals to come to their compound to get help. And Seoul has just learned that Washington plans to direct the next South Korean deployment into Kurdish areas of northern Iraq, which suffered little war damage and don't require much assistance. The implication: the United States is so eager to keep its allies out of harm's way that it's deemed acceptable if they do nothing at all.

Of course, many of these multinational forces--especially those from smaller countries like Mongolia--are there more for symbolic value than anything else. But, as the violence in Iraq increasingly makes clear, symbolism has its costs. It's not surprising that Moqtada al-Sadr's Shiite insurgents would try to take back cities in the Shiite heartland. But the fact that these places were being protected by foreign troops--and not U.S. forces--was probably an added calculation. "We had these weaker forces in the Shia region, so of course that is where the Shia militias wanted to attack," says Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. "That's where [their] prospects for success were best." America's Coalition partners signed on to help with nation-building, not war-fighting. If this is the best security the United States can provide, the allies can hardly be blamed for not wanting to stick it out as targets.

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