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Powell urges coalition to stay



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Spain announces plan to pull troops from Iraq.
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell has urged the leaders of 13 coalition countries to honor their troop commitments and remain in Iraq, the State Department says.

The plea came as the Dominican Republic announced it was following the lead of Spain and Honduras and withdrawing its troops in the coming weeks.

Earlier, Dominican President Hipolito Mejia had pledged to keep the country's 300 soldiers in southern Iraq until their one-year commitment ended in August.

On Monday Honduras announced it would withdraw its troops "in the shortest possible time."

Some 370 soldiers from Honduras, a strong U.S. ally in Central America, have been clearing mines and providing medical care in central Iraq.

The Latin American forces are deployed with the Spanish contingent in southern Iraq.

Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra is also promising to pull his 450 troops out if Iraq becomes too dangerous.

Meanwhile, there is still no word on the fate of three Italian security guards being held hostage in Iraq.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said on Tuesday he expected positive news to come at any time.

Four Italian civilians were abducted last week and one has already been killed.

Their captors are demanding Italy withdraw its troops from Iraq, but Berlusconi says he will not pull his forces out.

One day after being sworn in as Spain's prime minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero announced on Sunday he will withdraw Spain's 1,300 troops from Iraq as soon as possible.

The decision prompted an expression of "regret" from U.S. President George W. Bush.

In a phone call to Zapatero, Bush "stressed the importance of carefully considering future actions to avoid giving false comfort to terrorists."

Bush also "urged that the Spanish withdrawal take place in a coordinated manner that does not put at risk other coalition forces," White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said.

Jose Bono, the new Spanish defense minister, said Monday it would take less than six weeks to withdraw Spanish troops from Iraq, but did not say when the withdrawal would begin.

He told reporters a planeload of Spanish troops who are specialists in the logistics of moving troops was headed for the region, and would bring some of the "tactical troops" back to Spain.

Spain's sudden announcement has left other members of the multinational force scrambling to come up with a plan for keeping the peace in what has become one of the most tumultuous regions of the country.

Poland, which commands the 23-nation force of 9,500 troops in south-central Iraq, said it was taken by surprise by the announcement.

The Polish Defense Ministry said in a statement that commanders are now working on transferring "tasks from the Spaniards while maintaining the operational capability of the division and ensuring the safety of the soldiers." (Full story)

The news also triggered criticism from some coalition members, such as Australia.

Foreign Minister Alexander Downer worried that if other countries followed Madrid's example, "then Iraq would be left without security and Iraq would become a haven for terrorists."

Before the upset victory of Zapatero's Socialist Party following terrorist bombings in Madrid in March, Spain had been one of the staunchest U.S. allies in Iraq.

Despite the Spanish announcement, McClellan said: "The coalition in Iraq remains strong."

Earlier, coalition military spokesman Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt told reporters the withdrawal of Spanish troops from the holy city of Najaf in southern Iraq would not create a "security vacuum" in the region.

"They are a significant portion of what happens down in Multinational Division Central South, but numerically those are numbers that should be able to be replaced in a fairly short order."

The general said coalition military officials began considering their options when Zapatero won the election.

"Obviously, there are a number of courses of action that we'll take," Kimmitt said, "but there will not be a security vacuum in that area at any time."

But the news pleased Muqtada al-Sadr, the influential Shiite cleric who is hiding in the holy city of Najaf, where the Spanish troops are deployed,

"We have noticed that the coalition has pulled back," al-Sadr spokesman Sheikh Qais al-Khazaali said Monday.

"Muqtada al-Sadr has ordered the Mehdi Army to stop all attacks on the Spanish troops after they decided to pull out of Iraq."

Meanwhile, talks between Iraqis and coalition officials to stabilize the restive city of Fallujah came closer to success when negotiators came to a series of agreements announced Monday by coalition spokesman Dan Senor.

Senor told reporters that the Iraqi Governing Council, the Coalition Provisional Authority and local officials "have committed themselves to take all possible measures to reach a true and unbroken cease-fire." (Full story)

CNN White House Correspondent Dana Bash contributed to this report


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