On Iraq, can too many troops spoil a war?

As coalition builds, international qualms persist. Allies bring force, and obstacles.

By , Special correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

The Pentagon is steadily building a military "coalition of the willing" to overthrow the regime in Iraq, despite broad international reservations about armed intervention there.

Britain, which announced Monday it will dispatch in coming weeks a quarter of its army to the Gulf - 26,000 ground troops along with tanks and armored personnel carriers - is by far the coalition's biggest player, aside from the United States.

Still, officials say, behind-the-scenes negotiations over military contributions are stepping up between the Pentagon and dozens of other countries - such as Poland, Denmark, and Canada - as well as with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). In addition, preparations for US training of Iraqi opposition forces are under way in Hungary.

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So far, however, the US-led military coalition lacks both the breadth and depth of the one assembled for the 1991 Gulf War - the result of both diplomatic sensitivities over using force to overthrow Saddam Hussein, and a technology gap that complicates joint operations between American and foreign militaries.

Today's coalition will likely shape up to be an overwhelmingly American force, joined by a sizable British contingent and supplemented by other countries in key areas of shortage - such as special operations, linguists, and air-refuelling tankers.

"This is nothing like the [last] Gulf conflict: It will be a 95 percent US war," says Rear Adm. (ret.) Stephen Baker, a senior fellow at the Center for Defense Information here.

Select coalition of the willing

A number of nations with earlier reservations have offered military backing for an Iraq campaign since President Bush made his case at the United Nations in September. But others say their involvement remains contingent on a clear UN mandate on the use of force.

Yet while the Bush administration seeks to assemble the broadest coalition possible in order to lend legitimacy to the ousting of Mr. Hussein, there are technical limitations on the kinds of military support it can use.

"There is a concern with interoperability, including within NATO," says Admiral Baker. "I wonder how many other ground troops we would want from another country, because it complicates things."

The US ambassador to NATO opened a dialogue this month with the alliance on the possible use of NATO troops to provide security, or "force protection" during an Iraq war. Also being discussed is the use of NATO Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft.

A combat role for the 19 nation alliance has not been ruled out, according to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. "I wouldn't prejudge it," he said last week in response to a question on whether NATO would play a strictly a noncombat, supportting role.

Training of the opposition

Training for Iraqi opposition members, who could provide language skills and other knowledge of Iraqi localities to US troops, will begin soon in Hungary.

Earlier this month, several hundred US army trainers arrived at Hungary's Taszar Air Base to set up training facilities. Thousands of Iraqi volunteers are now being assembled to attend the US basic training, which is scheduled to last about 30 days, senior US military officials say.

The Pentagon has issued requests for military contributions to more than 50 countries. So far, several nations, including Britain, Denmark, and Poland, have agreed to join a military campaign without any additional UN mandate. Canada recently indicated it may follow suit, with Defense Minister John McCallum stressing that Ottawa "reserves the right" to supply forces without UN authorization.

Britain, in addition to the 26,000 newly deployed troops, 120 Challenger tanks, and 150 Warrior armored personnel carriers, has already dispatched a flotilla to the Gulf including warships that will carry 8,000 Royal Marines and sailors. The deployments are "in support of the diplomatic process to which we remain fully committed," British Defense Minister Geoffrey Hoon said Monday in announcing the latest mobilization.

Poland's President Aleksander Kwasniewski, who met with Mr. Bush here last week, hinted he has already made a concrete offer of military support. "Poland is ready to support the US, not only in political terms but also in logistical and military terms," said an embassy spokesman in Washington.

But a large group of other countries, such as New Zealand and Argentina, say that any contributions will remain contingent on a clear UN mandate to use force. If that mandate occurs, New Zealand is most likely to offer medical and logistical support - although it does not rule out a combat role, says New Zealand's defense attaché in Washington, Dick Newlands.

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