W By Vernon Loeb and Thomas E. Ricks
ASHINGTON – The Bush administration is asking its NATO allies to consider a broad range of contributions to a possible war against Iraq, from providing combat troops to non-combat activities designed to relieve the burden on U.S. reserves, senior U.S. officials said Thursday.
The administration believes that as many as eight NATO members could end up providing ground forces if Iraq refuses to disarm under U.N. Resolution 1441 and President Bush decides to take military action. With more than 50,000 U.S. reservists already activated and another 8,000 to 9,000 to be called up soon, the administration wants NATO to shoulder some of the burden that would come from a war in Iraq.
Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz outlined steps NATO could take when he met Wednesday in Brussels with all 19 NATO ambassadors. Among the options he suggested were the contribution of control aircraft to help patrol the Persian Gulf, missile batteries to safeguard Turkey and NATO forces to help guard U.S. military bases in Germany and Italy.
Wolfowitz’s request represented a significant departure for the Bush administration, which did not seek NATO’s help last year in the war in Afghanistan. “I think it’s a big departure for the United States, and a positive one,” said one senior NATO official. “This time, they’re going much earlier to the alliance and saying, we don’t want this to be a U.S.-only operation and we want NATO as an institution to be involved.”
The official said that Britain, Denmark, Spain, Portugal, Norway, Poland, the Czech Republic and Turkey all expressed “strong and unequivocal support for the U.S. policy that if diplomacy fails, force is going to be necessary.” The official added that “a number of these countries would want to participate in military operations.”
The official also said that discussions have begun within the alliance about deploying NATO forces to provide security at combat and air bases throughout the Persian Gulf. This would free U.S. forces for combat and relieve pressure on U.S. reservists, thousands of whom would otherwise have to be activated to help guard those bases.
Security and other “force protection” efforts are being given extra consideration in planning for any U.S. attack on Iraq out of fear that Iraq, al-Qaida or sympathizers with the terrorist network may respond by attacking U.S. military installations in the gulf, Europe or the United States.
One senior U.S. official described the use of NATO forces to guard bases as a means of “freeing up our people to do what they need to do where they need to do it.”
As an opening step in that direction, the Pentagon is considering asking some countries to provide security at U.S. bases on their soil if U.S. security forces are moved to the Persian Gulf, officials said.
The country being considered first for that form of assistance is Germany, whose leader, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, has pledged to keep German forces out of any war with Iraq. U.S. officials, looking for a way to get Germany’s help, may ask Schroeder to allow German troops to provide additional security at U.S. bases in the country.
A spokesman at the German embassy in Washington said his government would look favorably on such a request. “If those bases (in Germany) will be vacated and there’s less security provided by those forces, I’m sure the German armed forces will step up,” the spokesman said.
Traditionally in wartime, reserve units have been activated to fill vacancies created by the deployment of active-duty troops. But with growing strains on the reserves, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is asking defense officials to re-examine the practice and consider leaving some jobs unfilled until active duty forces return from overseas.
In a shorter-term move intended to ease the strains imposed on Air Force reserve security police units that have been employed heavily since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in New York and Washington, the Pentagon also is contemplating activating roughly 9,000 troops, mainly Army Reserve military police, to take over some Air Force base security work. That possible move was first reported in Thursday’s New York Times.