US remains optimistic on strength of anti-Iraq coalition

The United States has expressed optimism that, despite diplomatic rifts over the prospect of a military strike against Iraq, it can already count nine other countries that would contribute troops to such an attack. Nations agreeing at least to grant access to bases, airstrips and ports would number more than 20.

There was no word from the US yesterday on the identities of those states and some Western diplomats cautioned that the White House might be guilty of some mild wishful thinking. Who would line up with troop contributions will greatly depend on events in the coming weeks at the United Nations.

The figure of nine contributors was mentioned by Richard Armitage, the deputy secretary of state, during testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He said separately that 22 governments were at least offering logistical support in the event of war, if not troops. Albania announced yesterday that it would allow over-flights.

Washington has been heartened by a letter signed by the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, and seven other European heads of government pledging support for America's position inside the UN Security Council. The Wall Street Journal was the instigator of the unprecedented open letter, published in newspapers on Thursday, signed by Britain, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Portugal and Spain.

With Australia, which has already started deploying to the Gulf, this could already spell a nine-strong coalition of possible troop contributors. Denmark has since confirmed that it would take part in an offensive. But it is far from sure that every country that signed Thursday's letter would do the same.

"We are not certain where that number [of nine] came from," one senior diplomat observed anonymously. "We tend to think that it came out of a hat and is to do with American spin. It is a bit odd to spell out numbers now when so much depends on the circumstances when we get to that point."

Most important will be the developing picture inside the UN Security Council, which convenes on Wednesday to hear Colin Powell, the US Secretary of State, lay out the latest American intelligence on Iraq. Washington hopes the demonstration will bring more countries over to its view on Iraqi non-compliance.

In the event of deadlock in the Council, however, and a failure by Britain and America to forge a new resolution authorising war, even countries sympathetic with Washington may balk before negative public opinion in their own countries before joining military action.

At a meeting of the Security Council last Wednesday, at least nine countries expressed reservations on any early move towards military engagement and, to varying degrees, showed a preference for allowing inspections in Iraq to continue longer.

France and Germany, meanwhile, which were notably absent from the "gang of eight" statement, have created a strong front opposed to any hasty embrace of America's position.

At least nine positive votes will be needed in the Council for a new resolution to succeed, assuming that none of the five permanent members casts a veto.

The chief UN inspectors, Hans Blix and Mohamed al-Baradei, are meanwhile considering a new invitation from Iraq to visit Baghdad in the next 10 days. On 14 February they are due to deliver another progress report to the UN Security Council.

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