The United States bore the heaviest financial burden in providing naval protection for ships in the Persian Gulf in 1987-88, while some nations most dependent on gulf oil contributed little to the effort, according to a General Accounting Office (GAO) report released yesterday.

A similar pattern appears to be developing in the current gulf crisis, with the United States paying most of the military cost for Operation Desert Shield. With strong encouragement from Congress, the Bush administration has urged U.S. allies to play a larger role in confronting Iraq's aggression toward Kuwait.

"The nations that pulled their weight {in Earnest Will} are the ones doing their part today. Those that shirked the burden during Operation Earnest Will {the reflagging operation's code name} are the same ones balking today," said Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.), who requested the study as chairman of the House Armed Services subcommittee on military installations and facilities.

Operation Earnest Will cost the United States $240 million for the Navy warships used to protect international shipping threatened by the Iran-Iraq war, the GAO said. Of the six countries providing warships to the operation, the United States contributed 40 percent of the total cost, the report estimates.

France, which sent an aircraft carrier, three minesweepers and 11 other ships to the gulf region, accounted for 34 percent of the total. Britain, Italy, Belgium and the Netherlands contributed 10 percent or less. Six gulf states -- identified by congressional sources as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman and the United Arab Emirates -- provided fuel, port access and other assistance; the United States, for example, received $154 million in jet and ship fuel from the gulf "host countries," the report states.

The report notes that Japan and several European nations "that did not participate in Operation Earnest Will were the main importers of Persian Gulf oil during this period." In 1987, Japan imported 2.6 million barrels of gulf oil a day, or 58 percent of the country's daily consumption. West Germany imported 187,000 barrels of gulf oil, or 7.7 percent of that country's consumption. About 1 million barrels a day, or 7 percent of U.S. consumption, came from the region.

Although Japan did not participate in the military operations of Earnest Will, the GAO reported, it "claimed credit for $500 million in loans to Oman and Jordan" and for providing a $9 million navigation system in the gulf. West Germany "interpreted its constitution as prohibiting . . . a naval presence" in the gulf, the report added, and instead moved some naval forces to the Mediterranean, "thereby freeing other naval forces for relocation to the gulf."

In the current crisis, Japan intends to provide $1 billion to help defray costs for the multinational force in Saudi Arabia, as well as refugee assistance and economic aid to Turkey, Jordan and Egypt, a spokesman for the Japanese Embassy said yesterday. West Germany reportedly has decided not to underwrite U.S. forces in the gulf but may offer transport planes and ships.

The daily U.S. operating costs during Earnest Will included $74,000 a day for an aircraft carrier, $18,000 a day for a cruiser and $1,500 a day for a minesweeper. The U.S. Navy armada now in the gulf region includes four carriers and is roughly three times the size of the largest U.S. presence during Earnest Will.

No oil disruptions occurred during the reflagging operation and gulf oil production actually increased from 10 million barrels a day in early 1987 to 12 million barrels later in the year. Prices remained relatively steady during the period, ranging from $14 to $18 a barrel.

According to a Department of Energy analysis cited by the GAO report, a disruption of gulf oil through the Strait of Hormuz in early 1987 would have had a sharp impact on the U.S. economy. Crude oil, for example, would have increased from $18 to $43 a barrel, and gasoline from 96 cents to $1.54 a gallon. Inflation in the country would have increased by nearly 3 percentage points.