U.S. Gets Lukewarm Response to Call for Troops to Fight Iraq

Top U.S. allies gave a lukewarm response Thursday to American requests to chip in troops and other military support for a possible war in Iraq.

Their responses came a day after a senior aide to President Bush said Washington had contacted dozens of nations, including Canada, Britain and Germany, for military backing if Bush decides to attack Iraq.

Australia said it was too soon to talk about committing forces. Japan would not even confirm receiving such a request from Washington.

South Korea, which hosts about 37,000 U.S. soldiers, said it was undecided.

Germany, publicly at odds with Washington over Iraq, said it was reviewing the U.S. overture "with a view toward Germany's non-participation."

Belgian officials confirmed that U.S. officials had approached them, but said no specific requests had been made.

Arab leaders were mostly silent.

In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan would not respond directly when asked whether China had been approached for help by the United States. Quan said Beijing would prefer a "political solution to the Iraqi issue."

Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein has until Dec. 8 to give the United Nations an accounting of his weapons of mass destruction. Bush has been racing to assemble support for a possible military strike, saying Iraq has only a "short time" to come clean.

Even with many countries playing wait-and-see, the Bush administration has managed to score some early victories in rallying a coalition.

U.S. military forces are already in the Gulf states of Qatar, Bahrain and Kuwait, which have indicated a willingness to serve as staging points. And on Wednesday, Denmark approved the use of its soldiers and equipment in an international force.

Even China, a chief opponent of U.S. talk of war, has shown some readiness to cooperate. Earlier this week, Beijing approved port calls in Hong Kong for two U.S. aircraft carrier battle groups — one bound for the Middle East.

Victoria Clarke, a spokeswoman for Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, said she could not discuss specifics of U.S. consultations with potential allies.

She said there have been "lots of conversations" — including unsolicited offers of assistance from some unidentified countries — about "who can do what" if war comes.

Australia, one of Washington's staunchest allies in the war on terror, has backed Washington's tough stance on Baghdad and in recent months has refused to rule out supporting a U.S. attack on Iraq, even without U.N. backing.

Prime Minister John Howard has said Canberra is in talks with Washington about "contingency plans" for Iraq. But in a radio interview Thursday, he said, "It's premature at the moment to be talking about decisions about committing forces to Iraq."

He later told AAP news agency, however, that if Australia sends troops, the contingent would be roughly the size of that sent to Afghanistan — about 150 of Australia's crack SAS commandos.

In Japan, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's spokeswoman could not confirm whether the United States had made any specific requests to Tokyo.

"If and when there is a more concrete situation, then we'll have to react," said Misako Kaji. "We're not in a position to respond to all these 'if' questions."

Meanwhile, South Korea said it was approached by the United States, but that the request didn't ask for troops and was vague on the amount of support and timing.

"We have not yet decided our position regarding this," foreign ministry official Lee Tae-woo said.

Even Britain, whose air force routinely joins U.S. warplanes in attacks over the "no-fly" zones in northern and southern Iraq, offered no straight answer to Bush's call.

British Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon said Wednesday the United States had requested British troops but added that Britain has not made a decision. British lawmakers are scheduled to debate Iraq next week in Parliament.

Germany, which has about 1,250 troops participating in the war on terror, gave a more pessimistic response. Government spokesman Bela Anda said the U.S. request "will be thoroughly examined with a view toward Germany's non-participation in any possible military action in Iraq."

Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt confirmed U.S. officials had approached his country about providing support, but an armed forces spokesman said no formal requests had been made.

The Arabic satellite television network al-Jazeera reported Thursday that the United States approached Arab nations about helping in a possible strike and gave them a month to respond, but Egypt rejected the request.

However, Foreign Ministry officials said Egypt was not approached. They declined further comment.

Officials in Jordan and elsewhere in the Arab world have refused to comment on the request.

A U.S. official in Washington said Saudi Arabia has assured the United States it would provide logistical help in the event of a war.

It is essentially a "wink-and-a-nod" arrangement, with no public statements being made at the behest of leaders of the oil-rich Arab kingdom, said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

While Arab leaders are clearly worried that siding with the United States against a fellow Arab country could provoke unrest at home, they also distrust Saddam and are unlikely to stand by him if it would jeopardize their relationship with the world's only superpower.

When asked whether America's Arab allies had been asked for help, Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa said, "Does the U.S. need help? I did not think so."