WASHINGTON – Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld says the Bush administration "has every reason to believe" the British will make a significant contribution to any war with Iraq, although he would not count out going to war without Britain.
At a Pentagon news conference Tuesday, Rumsfeld was asked whether the United States was prepared to invade Iraq without British help — or with a reduced British role. He said those matters were under almost daily discussion and that he had just talked to his British counterpart, Geoff Hoon.
"What will ultimately be decided is unclear as to their role; that is to say, their role in the event a decision is made to use force," Rumsfeld said.
Britain is the only U.S. ally that so far has contributed substantial numbers of ground forces to a possible war against Iraq. Britain also has thousands of naval and air forces in the area.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair faces enormous public opposition for his support of Bush.
The matter of Britain's role will not be known for certain until efforts to gain approval for a U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force against Saddam Hussein are completed, Rumsfeld added.
"Until we know what the resolution is (going to say), we won't know the answer as to what their role will be," Rumsfeld said of the British military, which is deploying 45,000 troops to the Gulf.
"And to the extent they are able to participate — in the event that the president decides to use force — that would obviously be welcomed," he added. "To the extent they're not, there are workarounds and they would not be involved, at least in that phase of it."
Asked whether that meant the United States was considering going to war without Britain, he said, "That is an issue that the president will be addressing in the days ahead, one would assume."
Later, after reports that British officials were surprised by the comments, Rumsfeld's office issued a written statement saying his main point in the news conference was that obtaining a second U.N. Security Council resolution "is important to the United Kingdom" and that both countries were working to achieve it.
"In the event that a decision to use force is made, we have every reason to believe there will be a significant military contribution from the United Kingdom," Rumsfeld's statement said.
In London, Blair's office told The Associated Press: "This does not change anything. We are still working for a second resolution. We are not at a state of military combat but there has been complete cooperation between the United Kingdom and the United States throughout on the military planning side."
The U.S. commander who would lead a war against Iraq, Gen. Tommy Franks, met in Amman, Jordan on Tuesday with King Abdullah II. Franks' office was releasing few details about his schedule, although officials said he was headed to Afghanistan to visit U.S. troops and then to the Persian Gulf. His last stop will be his Gulf command post at Camp As Sayliyah, Qatar. It remained unclear whether Franks intended to remain there for the duration of the Iraq crisis.
At a joint news conference with Rumsfeld, Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the number of American forces now arrayed against Iraq exceeded 225,000 and more were en route.
Rumsfeld and Myers acknowledged that talks are still underway with Turkey about whether the United States will be allowed to base ground troops in Turkey for an assault on Iraq, as well as whether U.S. planes will be allowed to fly over Turkey en route to raids on Iraq.
U.S. and British fighter jets have been based in northern Turkey for years for use in patrolling the so-called northern "no fly" zone over Iraq. But a separate understanding would need to be reached for additional overflight operations.
Neither Myers nor Rumsfeld would say whether a 21,000-pound Air Force bomb that was tested for the first time Tuesday would be used in a war against Iraq. It is officially designated the Massive Ordnance Air Blast, or MOAB, although it has come to be called unofficially the Mother of All Bombs, a rough allusion to Saddam Hussein's claim before the 1991 Gulf War that that conflict would be the "mother of all battles."
"Anything we have in the arsenal, anything that's in almost any stage of development, could be used," Myers said.
Cheryl Irwin, a Pentagon spokeswoman, said the test was considered a success.
Rumsfeld indicated that the big bomb, which was dropped out the back of a C-130 transport plane over a test range at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., was as much a psychological tool as any weapon.
"The goal is to not have a war," he said. "The goal is to have the pressure be so great that Saddam Hussein cooperates. Short of that ... the goal is to have the capabilities of the coalition so clear and so obvious that there is an enormous disincentive for the Iraqi military to fight against the coalition."