Bush Arrives at NATO Summit to Rally Support

W By Paul Richter

wASHINGTON – President Bush arrived in the Czech Republic Tuesday aggressively seeking commitments of military support from European leaders for a possible war against Iraq.

Before landing in Prague for a two-day NATO summit, Bush said he would seek military assistance from a variety of countries.

“Everybody can contribute something,” Bush told Czech TV late Monday as he prepared for one-on-one sessions on the sidelines of the NATO summit. A coalition against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein could be formed “all kinds of ways,” Bush said Tuesday in an interview with Radio Free Europe.

The president’s statements were the highest-level acknowledgment of the campaign to secure military support that lower-level officials have been quietly pursuing for months. The administration has been offering inducements ranging from financial payments to offers of diplomatic assistance in a bid to secure backing if the United Nations effort to disarm Saddam fails.

The recent unanimous vote by the U.N. Security Council in favor of tough new arms inspections has dramatically intensified that coalition-building effort.

Passage of the U.N. resolution changed the issue of military commitments overnight “from something that was hypothetical to something that’s real. It really strengthens their hand,” said a senior congressional aide.

Officials already have approached about 50 countries, both to plan a possible campaign and to send Saddam a signal that United Nations members are determined to move against him if he obstructs U.N. weapons inspectors, who arrived in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, on Monday.

“This is a way to make sure that Saddam Hussein knows we’re serious,” a senior State Department official said. “Our experience shows that diplomacy works best when it is backed up by the possible use of force.”

The administration expects no trouble finding partners if the U.N. Security Council finds that Saddam has broken his pledge to allow inspectors to conduct their work without hindrance. But U.S. officials would like to line up allies willing to go in even without formal U.N. support, if need be.

U.S. officials are pressing their case with Middle Eastern countries that would be vital in any campaign against Iraq, such as Turkey and the Persian Gulf states. They are broadening their campaign to include, among others, close allies that have usually been important military partners, such as Canada and Australia, U.S. officials said.

Prime Minister Jean Chretien of Canada acknowledged Tuesday that the United States had approached Canada and allies seeking a commitment, just as it did before the Afghan war and the 1990-1991 Persian Gulf War.

“We’ll see what we’ve got, we’ll see what they need,” Chretien told reporters in Ottowa. “We already have ships, planes, troops there.” He said the request remained “very hypothetical, because I hope Saddam will comply and there will be no war.”

U.S. officials have been working to firm up support from Turkey, which has long been an important base for U.S. aircraft and would be key to staging any attack through northern Iraq.

U.S. officials have opened talks with Turkey on a compensation package aimed at offsetting any losses the impoverished country might suffer in a war. The package could be worth billions, and could include debt forgiveness, direct aid, and an offer to buy U.S. weapons at discounted prices.

Bush personally called the current EU president, Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, to urge that the European Union take the next step toward accepting Turkey when leaders of the union meet in Denmark next month.

The United States also has discussed a special aid package with Jordan, a country that relies on Iraqi oil and trade and whose large Palestinian population would not like any attack on Iraq. The United States is looking for intelligence cooperation and overflight rights from the tiny kingdom.

U.S. officials believe they have commitments for basing and overflight rights from a number of countries in the Persian Gulf area and Central Asia, including Kuwait and Qatar.

Some of these agreements still need to formalized, however.