CAIRO, Egypt -- Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney said yesterday that several nations -- including France and Syria -- in the 28-member force arrayed against Iraq would not fight to drive Iraq from Kuwait.
All the countries agree that Iraq must retreat from Kuwait, Mr. Cheney said, but, "It is clear that there are varying levels of commitment in terms of willingness to use offensive military action to achieve our objective."
He would not specify those nations unlikely to participate in military action, but he pointedly refused to include France and Syria among stalwart supporters of U.S. policy.
Mr. Cheney made the comments aboard his aircraft en route from Cairo to Washington after spending five days in Saudi Arabia and Egypt talking with officials and visiting U.S. troops.
Mr. Cheney met for an hour with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak yesterday to discuss the Persian Gulf crisis and brief the Egyptian leader on allied preparedness for war.
Afterward, Mr. Cheney attempted to clarify his statement a day earlier that the United States, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Britain were the nations "that really count" in the coalition against Iraq. Many of the other nations were unwilling to undertake military action to force Iraq's leader, Saddam Hussein, to remove his troops from Kuwait, Mr. Cheney said Saturday in response to a question from a sailor aboard the guided missile cruiser USS Bunker Hill.
"The ones that have the biggest forces and that have the most at stake and the strongest commitments are the Saudis the Brits and the Egyptians, alongside the U.S.," Mr. Cheney continued. "And we're the ones that bring the bulk of the forces to bear in this operation and I think those will be the key decision-makers in terms of how we operate."
He said that many other members of the coalition "are committed only to deterring further aggression" -- and not to pushing the huge and well-entrenched Iraqi army out of Kuwait.
But yesterday, Mr. Cheney went to great lengths to try to retract that statement. He said that all of the nations in the coalition "count" and that he would not speculate on who would or who would not participate in offensive military operations.
"You really should not try to create some complex new policy statement out of the response I gave yesterday," Mr. Cheney said. "I was simply having a session with the troops."
His remarks came only three weeks before the U.N. deadline for withdrawal of Iraqi forces and at a time when President Bush is trying to deliver an unambiguous threat to use force if Mr. Hussein does not comply.
Among the other nations that have sent troops or ships to the region are Canada, many of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Bangladesh and Morocco. Pakistan announced over the weekend that it was adding several thousand troops to the 2,000 it has dispatched to Saudi Arabia.
The United States has nearly 300,000 land, sea and air forces in the Persian Gulf region with another 130,000 on the way. The Saudi army and air force number about 65,000, the Egyptians have promised to send 40,000 ground troops and Britain has about 15,000 mechanized troops in the theater.
The other 24 nations as a group have provided fewer than 100,000 troops.
Mr. Cheney stressed over and over again during his five-day visit to Saudi Arabia that the United States will accept nothing less than the withdrawal of all Iraqi troops from all of Kuwait.
"Allowing him [Mr. Hussein] to keep even 10 percent of what he stole," Mr. Cheney said, would be nothing short of "appeasement."
But administration officials are clearly concerned that the coalition will splinter if Mr. Hussein removes most, but not all, of his troops. It will then be far more difficult to justify military action without a united multinational front, officials have said privately.