The Bush administration went on the media warpath Thursday, insisting that its "coalition of the willing" against Iraq was a truly multilateral campaign by more than 35 nations, with more countries joining up every day.
An indignant Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld asserted at a Pentagon briefing that "this is not a unilateral action, as is being characterized in the media. Indeed, the coalition in this activity is larger than the coalition that existed during the Gulf War in 1991."
Nearly identical language came from President Bush and officials at the White House, State Department and Pentagon, in what appeared to be a coordinated message.
The target was the world media, which have from some quarters scorned the anti-Iraq campaign as a "coalition of the unwilling." Many have noted that unlike the 1991 coalition that ousted Iraq from Kuwait, with 30 nations providing troops or some sort of military support, this time only two nations -- Britain and Australia -- are committing significant numbers of troops to the U.S.-led effort.
President Bush made a point of thanking the contributors at a meeting of his cabinet Thursday.
"Over 40 nations now support our efforts," Bush said, citing an even higher figure than some others in his administration. "We are grateful for their determination, we appreciate their vision and we welcome their support."
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer noted that that population of the "coalition of the willing" countries totaled 1.18 billion people with a combined gross domestic product of $21.7 trillion.
"It's no accident that many members of this coalition recently escaped from tyranny and oppression and they understand what is at stake in bringing freedom and liberation to the Iraqi people," Fleischer said. He noted that Turkey, which had previously rejected a U.S. request to move 62,000 troops across its territory to open a northern front in the war, on Thursday approved overflight rights for U.S. and coalition warplanes.
Battling the criticism that an arrogant America is flouting world opinion by embarking on the war without United Nations' approval, officials stressed the multinational nature of the coalition partners.
"Every major race, religion and ethnic group in the world is represented," Fleischer added. "The coalition includes nations from every continent on the globe."
Rumsfeld agreed. "The coalition in Iraq includes countries from every part of the world, including a large number of Muslim-majority countries. Some are supporting the effort publicly; others are doing so privately," he said.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the number of countries supporting the U.S.-led effort had grown well beyond the 35 countries that have publicly pledged support.
He declined to give a list, saying that the participation of some countries had not been confirmed while others did not want to be publicly named. "It's easily above 50 now," Boucher told reporters.
He argued that the changed nature of this war, including the need to protect against and then hunt for weapons of mass destruction, meant that specialized high-tech units could be as useful as large deployments of troops.
"It may be very important to have a contribution that's small in numbers but specialized in abilities, like some of the nuclear, biological and chemical units that we're getting," Boucher said. "In some of that stuff you need rapid response."
Moreover, countries that won't send fighting forces will help rebuild war-damaged Iraq, Boucher said. The U.S. is anxious not to shoulder the potentially huge reconstruction costs alone.
"It's not necessarily of less value to have a contribution to rebuilding Iraq than it is to have a contribution militarily while the conflict's going," he said. "We welcome those who have said, 'We are happy to contribute to rebuilding the water supply.' "
The White House Web site (www.whitehouse.gov) on Thursday posted a list of 44 nations that were "committed to" disarming Iraq. It did not say what each country would do but noted that the contributions ranged from direct military participation to "logistical and intelligence support, specialized chemical/biological response teams, over-flight rights, humanitarian and reconstruction aid, to political support."
Political support seemed minor, if not grudging, from some nations on the list.
Reports from Lisbon quoted Portugal's President Jorge Sampaio on Thursday as saying that because the military action had no mandate from the U.N., Portugal's contribution would be limited to allowing U.S. and British planes to cross the country's airspace "just as other countries have done, including some which have expressed strong opposition to any military action against Iraq."
Other coalition members have nothing but moral support to offer, as they are among the world's most impoverished. They include Afghanistan, Angola, Albania, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Micronesia, Rwanda and Uganda.