President Bush has crafted a fragile alliance in the war against Iraq -- governments around the world who have pledged money, arms and moral support. But that doesn't mean their citizens have to go along with it, including the crews of commercial foreign ships hired to carry supplies to the Persian Gulf.

In a recent incident, one crew of a German ship refused to sail into the gulf and the shipping company had to send in a U.S.-flagged ship to finish the job.

The U.S. Military Sealift Command, which oversees the naval supply operation, has played down the incident. But some on Capitol Hill aren't convinced and fear that the war could be hampered by more skittish delivery crews who refuse to sail into a combat zone.

The U.S. government uses commercial ships to carry everything from tanks to toilet paper for troops stationed overseas. The sailors belong to the private Merchant Marine. Since the American commercial fleet has dwindled substantially in recent years, the heavy shipping demands of a war force the Pentagon to sometimes rely on foreign ships.

And it was a foreign ship that balked about going into the gulf. That ship, the Eagle Nova, reportedly is owned by a German company. American President Lines of Oakland, Calif., hired the Eagle Nova to carry cargo from the United Arab Emirates to India, but at the last minute diverted the cargo to supply U.S. forces in the gulf.

When the crew refused to go, American President Lines sent a replacement ship under U.S. flag.

The House Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee, chaired by Rep. Walter B. Jones (D-N.C.), had been keeping track of the Merchant Marine service during the Persian Gulf crisis. Our associate Scott Sleek has learned that the committee is now scrutinizing the Eagle Nova incident.

A sizable percentage of the gulf-bound cargo, including weapons and ammunition, is being shipped on foreign vessels. Iraq has a negligible navy, but can make life dangerous in the gulf with mines and missiles. Foreign crews may not feel enough loyalty to the anti-Iraq alliance to risk their necks supplying the troops.

Sealift capacity has been a worry from the onset of the gulf crisis. When Bush first sent troops to Saudi Arabia in August, the deployment was hampered by mechanical problems with the merchant vessels. Even if all the ships were in perfect working order, which they aren't, the United States still would not have enough American commercial ships to meet the demands of half a million troops sent half a world away.

In the late 1980s a special commission issued a series of reports warning about the decline in war readiness of the Merchant Marine fleet. "The deteriorated condition of America's maritime industries continues to present a growing danger to the national security," one of the reports concluded.

That leaves the Pentagon dependent on foreign ships and crews that may have no allegiance to the allied cause.