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As war with Iraq threatens, coalition lines up behind U.S.

Friday, February 14, 2003

SOFIA, Bulgaria -- President Bush's "coalition of the willing" is a mixed bag of nations -- some strong enough to provide military help, others limited to offering symbolic support -- but their leaders are united in standing with the U.S. threat to remove Saddam Hussein by force.

Bulgaria's foreign minister, for one, looks at Saddam, sees Adolf Hitler and remembers the indecision that kept the Allies from standing up to Nazi Germany early and perhaps averting World War II.

"We all remember the hesitancy of the Allies, who weren't sure whether to attack Hitler. They could have prevented so much," Solomon Pasi said this week. "We're in a situation where we have a moral imperative to act and act now."

He and other coalition leaders are resolute in standing with the Americans, although, as in Britain, just because governments are willing doesn't mean their citizens are.

Many of the partners are weak. Realistically, Washington would rely heaviest on Britain, by far the most powerful coalition member, for military muscle if war comes.

Britain is sending 42,000 military personnel to the Persian Gulf -- a quarter of its army, a third of its air force and its largest naval deployment since the 1982 Falklands War.

Australia has ordered 2,000 soldiers to the Gulf and hints it's ready to join a U.S.-led attack with or without U.N. backing. Canada appears closer to joining, and Washington can count on logistical support from Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, Denmark, Portugal and Turkey.

But it's the formerly communist "new Europe" whose support has added intrigue to the showdown with Saddam. America is learning it can count among its best friends the fledgling democracies that were once behind the Iron Curtain.

"Now it is probably time the European leaders visit Normandy Beach to see with their own eyes what the United States of America has done on behalf of freedom," said Prime Minister Fatos Nano of Albania, which has offered troops and will let the U.S. military use its airspace and territorial waters.

"People may forget. Some countries in Europe may forget. We Albanians do not forget," Nano wrote in a recent commentary for The Boston Globe.

Backing Bush

Other nations that have aligned themselves with the Bush administration include the central and eastern European nations of Croatia, Czech Republic, Hungary, Macedonia, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia and the three Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

After Secretary of State Colin Powell laid out his case against Iraq before the U.N. Security Council, most of those countries issued a joint statement saying they had lived under communism, understood tyranny and saw Saddam's regime as a "clear and present danger."

The support is largely symbolic from countries whose armies are weak, poorly trained and armed with outdated Soviet-era weaponry. Even so, their governments seem eager to do what they can.

The Czechs and Slovaks have committed special anti-chemical warfare units for service in Kuwait. Bulgaria, which has a seat on the Security Council, is offering use of a military airport and a 150-soldier non-combat unit. Lithuania has approved U.S. flyovers and hints it might be willing to contribute troops.

The Romanians intend to send nuclear, biological and chemical decontamination specialists as well as military police and mine clearance units and make available air and naval bases on the Black Sea within striking distance of Iraq. Poland could end up using a navy ship in the Gulf to ferry U.S. troops or help set up mobile field hospitals.

Gratitude for U.S. help in shaking off communism as well as preparing for membership in NATO and the European Union is a factor behind the fervor. More to the point is that countries from the Baltics to the Balkans feel as vulnerable as the United States to weapons of mass destruction.

"This is not about gratitude. It's about sharing responsibility for international security," said Daniel Vaarik, a spokesman for the Estonian government.

Nansen Behar, who runs the Institute for Social and Political Studies in Sofia, Bulgaria's capital, contends there is more pragmatism than sentimentality behind many former Soviet bloc countries' support. Bulgaria, he suggested, hopes that backing the United States will bring badly needed loans and investment.

"There was a gentleman's agreement after the Cold War: America said if we got rid of communism, they'd help us build a normal and prosperous Western society. Instead, people are struggling to survive," Behar said.

However, anti-war activists and opposition politicians -- some fearful that joining the United States could subject them to terrorist attacks at home -- are whipping up public sentiment against a conflict.

In the Western-oriented Baltics, which broke free of the Soviet Union in 1991 with Washington's help, more than two-thirds of people polled say they are against a war in Iraq.

Three in four Slovaks criticize their government's decision to deploy a chemical warfare unit to the Gulf, and anti-war Bulgarians have staged small but boisterous protests. The head of Bulgaria's Olympic Committee, a son-in-law of the nation's late communist ruler, Todor Zhivkov, caused a stir by saying he'd be willing to fight for Saddam.

Some countries, notably the Czech Republic, fret that supporting Washington risks alienating some in the European Union just as EU membership is within their grasp. France and Germany, powerhouses in the EU, are leading the opposition to U.S. plans.

Still, while talk is mounting about a second U.N. resolution to authorize military action against Iraq, few eastern European leaders are publicly insisting on one.

"I don't want war. Who does?" said Siim Kallas, Estonia's prime minister. "But I believe we must choose sides. And I believe our side is with the United States."


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