It’s a coalition of the dwindling.

The U.S.-led multinational occupying force in Iraq is losing troops from two of its most important allies -Italy and South Korea -and up to a half dozen other members could draw down their forces or pull out entirely by year’s end.

In the months after the March 2003 invasion, the occupying forces peaked at about 300,000 soldiers from 38 nations, including 250,000 U.S. troops. But the “coalition” has shrunk steadily ever since, with Spain and Ukraine among the larger contributors to pull out.

The latest blow to the current 26-nation “coalition” is Italy’s decision to pull its remaining 2,600 troops out by the end of the year.

Italy’s new defense minister, Arturo Parisi, was quoted by Italian media as saying “Italy won’t turn its back on Iraq” and would offer unspecified political, civil and humanitarian support.

And Italian Foreign Minister Massimo D’Alema wrote in the May 30 Corriere della Sera newspaper that the pullout would be carried out “with the minimum possible risk for our soldiers, who have paid a high price,” referring to the deaths of 31 Italian troops in Iraq.

“We’ll be able to deal with this decision while keeping in mind the consequences for the Iraqi people and the need to coordinate with coalition forces,” said D’Alema, confirming the force would be reduced to 1,600 by mid-June.

South Korea, the third-largest contributor of forces, began bringing troops home this week as part of a plan to withdraw about 1,000 of its 3,200 soldiers from northern Iraq by year’s end.

Other countries are thinking about drawing down their forces.

Lawmakers in Denmark, which has 530 personnel in Iraq, approved a government plan Tuesday to cut the contingent by 80 troops. They also extended the mission to June 30, 2007.

Japan has about 600 noncombat troops doing humanitarian work in southern Iraq, and says it won’t decide whether to withdraw them until Baghdad appoints new defense and interior ministers. There has been speculation the Japanese force will be withdrawn this year.

And in Poland, the prime minister said this month that his government was weighing whether to keep troops in Iraq beyond the end of 2006. Poland has 900 troops in central Iraq, where it leads an international force.

The United States has about 132,000 troops in Iraq and the Bush administration refuses to set a date or timetable for withdrawal. Britain is the second largest force with 8,000 troops. The U.S. war cost is set to reach $315 billion by September, according to the U.S. National Priorities Project. U.S. public opinion is at an all time low in its support for the war and occupation. Seventy-two percent of U.S. troops in Iraq favor being brought home by the end of the year.

Associated Press writers Alessandra Rizzo in Rome and William Kole in Vienna contributed to this story.

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