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U.S.: As War With Iraq Looms, Washington Leads Patchwork Coalition

  • Jeremy Bransten

As a military conflict with Iraq appears to draw nearer, the United States says it is not acting unilaterally but has the active support of a large number of allies. What countries have pledged to assist the United States, and what kind of help will they provide?

Prague, 22 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- From the start, the United States has emphasized that if the conflict with Iraq escalates into a military confrontation -- as appears increasingly likely -- America will lead a coalition of like-minded allies into battle.

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld stressed this point again on 20 January in Washington. "Let there be no doubt, there are a large number of countries that are signed up to be helpful in the event that force is needed in dealing with Iraq. This business about going in alone or unilateral is nonsense. There are a substantial number of countries that are ready to help," Rumsfeld said.

U.S. efforts to assemble an anti-Saddam Hussein coalition got a boost last November, when the UN Security Council unanimously approved Resolution 1441, which established an enhanced inspection regime for Iraq's disarmament and threatens "serious consequences" in case of a "material breach" by Iraq.

But with only a week to go before chief UN weapons inspector Hans Blix is due to report back to the UN on the initial results of those inspections, open opposition to any war plans -- regardless of Blix's findings -- is being heard increasingly loudly from many U.S. allies.

This raises the question of whether America's closest allies, as Rumsfeld claims, are in fact prepared to provide meaningful assistance if Washington decides to go to war. So far, the "coalition of the willing" is a rather modest and eclectic group -- perhaps enough for Rumsfeld to speak of a broad coalition, but, save for Britain's contribution, of little consequence militarily and hardly comparable to the coalition assembled by the United States during the last Gulf War.

Britain, which has stood by the United States from the start of the Iraqi crisis, is committing some 30,000 troops to the region -- a quarter of its army -- and Prime Minister Tony Blair's uncompromising words have closely echoed those coming from Washington, despite what pollsters say is increasingly strong opposition among the British people to a possible war. One poll this week showed 81 percent of those surveyed opposed to war without another UN resolution and 47 percent opposed to a war under any circumstances, prompting Blair yesterday to once again defend his position and paint his detractors as America-bashers.

"I find some aspects of some of the public discourse about America just anti-American, and I think it is wrong and misguided, and America, for all its faults -- and all nations have them -- is a force for good in the world, I believe," Blair said.

But Blair appears to be an exception among America's oldest NATO allies and, despite recent words from NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson about the alliance's readiness to back the United States during a conflict, key members are speaking out in favor of delaying any decision to go to war.

France and Germany raised their voices in the UN Security Council on 20 January -- the day Rumsfeld made his declaration -- against any early attack on Iraq, in favor of giving more time for UN inspections. This followed a call by Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini two days earlier, who also declared UN inspectors should be given more time. Turkey, meanwhile, has delayed a decision on whether to open its bases to thousands of U.S. troops for operations in neighboring Iraq.

America seems to be doing better with NATO's newest members. Poland's President Aleksander Kwasniewski expressed strong support for the United States during his visit to Washington last week. And Polish Foreign Minister Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz said yesterday that his country is ready to back the United States in military action against Iraq "even without the agreement of the United Nations."

The Czech Republic currently has a highly regarded, 250-person chemical- and biological-warfare unit in Kuwait. The Czech parliament last week gave the unit permission to act in regional rescue and humanitarian missions in the event that Iraq uses weapons of mass destruction. But the unit will not have a mandate to deploy inside Iraq unless the UN adopts another resolution approving military action against Baghdad.

Furthermore, Czech Defense Minister Jaroslav Tvrdik raised some eyebrows over the weekend during a visit to Kuwait, when he offered any Czech soldiers uncomfortable with the prospect of war a chance to return home immediately. Twenty-seven soldiers, representing one-10th of the Czech contingent, took him up on the offer. The Czech Defense Ministry has since offered its troops in Kuwait an extra $800-per-month bonus as an inducement to tough it out.

Hungary, for its part, is allowing U.S. forces to use its military base at Taszar, in the south of the country, to train some 3,000 Iraqi opposition volunteers as guides, translators, and civil support in any international military action against Iraq. But Budapest has emphasized that the training is nonmilitary, in an attempt to placate public opinion, which is largely opposed to Hungarian participation in any conflict.

The Hungarian press, across the political spectrum, has greeted the mission with suspicion. The conservative "Magyar Nemzet" this week cast doubt on what kind of training the Iraqis at Taszar would actually be receiving, while the liberal "Magyar Hirlap" accused the Americans of casting a pall of secrecy over the whole project.

Among NATO's soon-to-be members, only Lithuania admits to having received a request for U.S. assistance. The Lithuanian cabinet met this week to consider what form that assistance should take. Giedrius Cekuolis, a senior Foreign Ministry official in charge of relations with NATO, spoke to RFE/RL. "We are among those countries to have been addressed by the United States and, of course, now the request is being examined, and we are having discussions between the Ministry of Defense and Foreign Affairs. And, of course, the request is a pool of things that Lithuania could do," he said.

But Cekuolis conceded that Lithuania's help, measured quantitatively, will be small. "It's not so much, so to say. It's about the diplomatic permission for overflight over Lithuanian territory and other things. Probably, we'll be discussing providing small units for logistics or medical units. That means a group of three or four medical doctors, like we had in Afghanistan. And then, probably, there might be discussions on Lithuanian participation in post-conflict [Iraq], whether it's sending some sort of police force or peacekeepers," Cekuolis said.

Estonian and Latvian officials contacted by RFE/RL say they have received no formal U.S. requests and are not planning any immediate assistance measures. The same holds true for future NATO members Bulgaria and Slovakia.

Romanian Foreign Minister Mircea Geoana recently visited Kuwait, but Bucharest has kept its official position on possible assistance to the U.S. deliberately ambiguous.

Geoana, speaking at a news conference earlier this month, said: "We have had political and technical consultations with our allies. Up to now, there has been no formal decision on a possible Romanian contribution, and a decision of such importance will have to take into consideration, first, the international context and secondly, the evaluation of the risks and opportunities made by any responsible government in such a moment."

Or, as the less diplomatic headline of the daily newspaper "Currentul" put it bluntly, "Romania Doesn't Want to Go to War With Iraq, But Will Do What the U.S. Says."

In sum, it appears America can count at this stage on an Anglo-Saxon military coalition with Britain and Australia pledging troops, which will be tepidly supported -- in a nonmilitary role -- by NATO's less militarily important members, as well as a few additional, if reluctant, allies. The Persian Gulf states of Kuwait and Qatar are allowing their territory to be used by American forces for possible military action against Iraq, but as recent attacks against Americans in Kuwait have shown, the U.S. presence is not universally welcomed.

The "coalition of the willing" may not be quite as "substantial" as Secretary Rumsfeld would have it, but for an American administration seemingly determined to follow through on its policy, it will have to do.

(RFE/RL's Romanian, Bulgarian, Slovak, Estonian, Lithuanian, and Latvian services contributed to this report.)