'We Didn't Realize We Were At War'

The trio of suicide bombers were determined to reach their target--the Italian military compound in the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriya. They were in two vehicles--a car loaded with explosives and a tanker truck apparently full of gaso-line. For once, though, the terrorists didn't catch their prey off guard. As the bombers crashed through the compound's front gate, carabinieri guards immediately opened fire. Their quick action probably saved scores of lives. After a brief fire fight, the attackers detonated their vehicles in the compound's parking lot. As it was, 19 Italians died--the country's biggest military loss since World War II, and the worst single loss the American-led Coalition has yet suffered. Fourteen Iraqis were also killed. Back home, Italians were stunned by the news; most hadn't even known their troops were in harm's way. Said Fabrizio Cicchitto, an adviser to prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, "Until today, many of us did not realize we were a country at war."

That somber sentiment surely ran through many of the 31 countries that have sent soldiers, engineers, police or other personnel to Iraq to assist the U.S.- and British-led reconstruction effort. And it may have scared off other potential contributors to the cause. Because major U.S. allies Germany and France have not joined the Coalition, the Bush administration has turned to an odd assortment of mostly smaller countries for help. In all, those nations have sent only about 15,000 soldiers to Iraq. Spain and the Netherlands have modest military units in the country; Poland (more than 2,000 troops) commands a multinational force. For countries such as El Salvador (360 troops), Lithuania (90 troops) and Kazakhstan (27 troops), it has been their first foreign military mission. Helmeted Mongolians have set foot in Iraq for the first time since Genghis Khan. Meantime, countries the United States had hoped would send significant forces, such as Turkey, Pakistan and India, have declined to do so.

Many of the leaders who joined the Coalition did so reluctantly, knowing their involvement would be unpopular with their people. So they set conditions on their deployment, often insisting that their troops be kept away from violent areas. Berlusconi had originally promised his skeptical countrymen that he was only sending troops on a humanitarian mission. In fact, most of the 2,400 Italians in Nasiriya were actual-ly policemen, the paramilitary carabinieri. Now that it's clear Iraqi insurgents don't draw much of a distinction between Americans and their allies, these leaders have good reason to question the wisdom of their deployments, however minor.

Despite the restrictions and small numbers, the Coalition partners have made a difference. They've helped to free up thousands of U.S. troops for frontline work--and allowed George W. Bush and Tony Blair to claim with some validity that the nation-building effort is international. The Italians replaced U.S. Marines in Nasiriya, which had been considered relatively safe until last Wednesday's bombing. In August the Poles took over the Shiite holy city of Karbala, which had been restive but not violent until recently. Just six days before the Nasiriya suicide bombing, a Polish major was shot to death in an ambush.

As with any such effort, there have been communication problems. When the Coalition's civilian administrator, L. Paul Bremer, was summoned to Washington abruptly last week, his aides apparently failed to tell Polish Prime Minister Leszek Miller, who was visiting Baghdad. Poland, with 2,400 soldiers in Iraq, is the largest troop contributor in the Coalition after Britain. (Any unhappiness over the incident may be mitigated by the knowledge that, according to a Polish Foreign Ministry official, Polish companies are close to signing "huge contracts" in Iraq.)

Now the Bush administration must deal with the possibility that the intensifying violence will frighten off potential allies. The day after the Nasiriya bombing, South Korea capped its commitment at 3,000 troops--far less than the 10,000 the Pentagon had hoped to get. Until Thursday, Japan had been expected to send a small number of troops, although not to fight; the country's Iraq Reconstruction Law prohibits deployment in war zones. After the Nasiriya bombing, Japan said it was unlikely to send any personnel before the end of the year. Nevertheless, says Yukio Okamoto, special adviser to the Japanese prime minister, "Japanese troops will be dispatched when all the preparations are made. If we backed out, we would fall prey to the terrorists' strategies." Bush administration officials note that Japan's $1.5 billion financial commitment to Iraq was bigger than any country's except the United States'.

Ironically, the one country the suicide bombings seemed to galvanize was Italy. Stunned Italians responded with an outpouring of both grief and patriotism. Deputy Prime Minister Gianfranco Fini declared Nov. 12 "Italy's 9/11." The next day Rome defiantly stuck to earlier plans and dispatched 50 more carabinieri to Iraq to replace the fallen and reinforce those who remained. Mourners festooned carabinieri posts with wreaths and testimonials. This Tuesday was declared a national day of mourning in Italy; all businesses were ordered to close for 10 minutes during state funerals for the victims at St. Paul's Basilica. Previously, Italians by a wide margin had opposed their prime minister's inclination to intervene in Iraq. After the bombing they were evenly divided on whether the war was just, and a majority said the country should stick with its commitment in Iraq, according to a poll by the newspaper La Repubblica. If other nations show a similar resolve and opt to join the beleaguered Coalition, the Bush admin-istration will breathe a big sigh of relief. If not, the fraught rebuilding effort could soon become even more perilous.