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Nations pledge military strength

The Canadian frigate Toronto has been steaming steadily toward the Persian Gulf with its crew of 239 since Feb. 12, en route to its mission: unknown.

The vessel has passed through the Straits of Gibraltar, the Mediterranean Sea, the Suez Canal into the Red Sea and still no one from the ship's crew to the Canadian Department of Defense in Ottawa was sure exactly where the Toronto was headed or precisely its role."It's going to the northern part of the gulf region, that's all we know," said Capt. Lynne Chaloux, a Canadian defense department spokeswoman in Ottawa. "We are in consultations with the allies."

Capitals of more than a dozen nations are likewise awaiting allied word on the deployment of military contributions to the buildup in the gulf backing the threat of U.S.-British air strikes against Iraq:

A military field hospital from Argentina. A Dutch frigate. Another from Belgium. A C-130 Hercules transport plane from Norway. A Danish C-130 cargo plane. Polish anti-chemical defense troops.

However, the threat of a military strike seemed less likely Sunday when U.N. officials said Secretary-General Kofi Annan and Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein reached a compromise that seemed to fulfill the main condition for avoiding a U.S. attack - opening Iraq's presidential palaces to U.N. weapons inspectors.

Besides the British aircraft carrier and fighter planes, little of the military strength pledged by nearly 20 nations allied in the confrontation over U.N. weapons inspections specifically back the threat of air strikes.

Only some - the Polish anti-chemical troops, for example - would be useful in repelling a retaliatory Iraqi attack on Kuwait.

During the 1991 Persian Gulf War, more than 30 nations joined forces in an offensive operation to push Saddam Hussein's troops out of Kuwait. Gulf countries provided troops and critical air-attack staging grounds. Nations from around the globe sent troops, warships, fighter planes and opened their air space.

This time, some contributing countries want assurances that diplomatic efforts have been exhausted before committing their forces to more than a support role. Many Arab gulf countries fear regional consequences if they allow American and British fighters to stage attacks from their territory.

So far in the buildup, much of what is being offered provides political weight, not military muscle, to threat of U.S.-British air strikes.

"Basically, they are giving the United States the political support, without taking risks," said Col. Andrew Duncan, an independent military commentator and retired British army colonel.

"One shouldn't sneer at it, though. What the Americans need is more and more countries supporting them," he said. "Sending some element of their armed forces, however it might be used, is helpful because it puts pressure on Saddam Hussein and possibly convinces some of the waverers" to back the threat.

And if there is combat, the Argentinean field hospital would provide necessary medical support. If fighter planes are lost, the Australian special forces would have a job evacuating pilots. Lisbon's offer of an air base in the Azores, 800 miles west of mainland Portugal, provided a critical staging point during the gulf war and could again.

And what about the frigates, which by military design defend larger vessels?

Wherever the Toronto is deployed "it's supposed to be a little hard on the ship," a crew member contributed to a Canadian defense department Web site tracking the ship's progress to the gulf.

But in truth, the Toronto - like the Dutch and the Belgian frigates also on their way - probably won't see military action because the tiny Iraqi navy is unlikely to take on three U.S. and British aircraft carriers.

"So it's not surprising that the Canadian captain doesn't know what he's going to be doing when he gets there, because he's not going to do anything," Duncan said.