OTTAWA, SEPT. 24 -- Amid mounting criticism that Canada is being drawn into an escalating role in the Persian Gulf conflict at the bidding of the United States, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney today said he would never choose neutrality in the face of Iraq's aggression.

Mulroney suggested that more Canadian forces would be sent to the region if needed, and he disclosed that in addition to three warships and a squadron of F/A-18 fighter-bombers that already have been sent to the gulf, Canada was providing aircraft to ferry troops of other nations to the region.

Mulroney, in an impassioned speech at the reopening of Parliament, invoked the memory of Canadian soldiers who died "on the beaches of Normandy and the hills of Korea." He said that while today's Canadian army is best known for its peace-keeping activity around the world, "Canadians have never looked for a free ride and we are not going to start today."

His speech came in response to protests by opposition spokesmen who charged that by contributing to a massive military buildup in the Middle East that can only lead to war, Canada is abetting a unilateral extension by the United States of U.N. Security Council sanctions.

Leaders of the opposition Liberal and New Democratic parties also condemned Mulroney for committing Canadian forces to the gulf without recalling Parliament from its summer recess to debate the issue.

Lloyd Axworthy, foreign affairs specialist for the Liberal Party, said that while the deployment of two destroyers and a supply ship to help enforce a naval blockade against Iraq was within the U.N. mandate, the dispatch of the West Germany-based fighter squadron and 450 support personnel was not, because the aircraft could be used for offensive strikes.

Axworthy demanded that all military deployments by Ottawa come under the authority of the U.N. Security Council, of which Canada is a member. He added: "Canadians are not prepared to give a blank check for the use of force. If it is to be used, let it be used in that multilateral way, in that international way."

Audrey McLaughlin, leader of the New Democratic Party, also recalled Canada's pride in its non-bellicose foreign policy and its contribution to peace-keeping forces worldwide. She said, "Unfortunately, the president of the United States decided to take things beyond the United Nations."

Reflecting many Canadians' sensitivity to what they perceive as their government's frequent acquiescence to U.S. strategic interests, McLaughlin declared: "Canada joins the Organization of American States, and the first thing we do is support the U.S. invasion of Panama. Then Canada becomes a member of the U.N. Security Council, and the first thing we do is support the United States' unilateral circumvention of the United Nations."

She suggested that Canada use its authority on the council to promote diplomatic initiatives, such as an international conference to resolve the Palestinian issue.

However, Foreign Minister Joe Clark said that while Canada is exploring a number of diplomatic options to resolve the gulf crisis, he was wary of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's demands for linking a withdrawal from Kuwait to such long-unresolved issues as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Clark stressed, however, that any diplomatic initiatives must be accompanied by military pressure on Iraq. He said that if the United Nations asks for it, Canada would be prepared to send more troops in order to maintain that pressure.

"I have no apology for being part of sending Saddam Hussein a signal and giving diplomacy a chance," Clark said.

Beyond the politically inspired objections to Mulroney's handling of the military deployment, there have been questions about how suitable Canada's 85,000-strong armed forces are for the gulf crisis.

Canada's naval forces, based in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and Esquimault, B.C., are geared primarily for anti-submarine warfare in the North Atlantic and Pacific. Some defense analysts have noted that Iraq has no submarines.

The two aging destroyers sent to the gulf last month are among 20 currently being refitted, and both required hasty rearmament that necessitated considerable weapons testing on the way to the Suez Canal.

The 24,000-member army is best known for peace-keeping duties, having monitored opposing forces in the 1948 India-Pakistan war, the Middle East, the Congo, Cyprus and Vietnam. While Canadian troops have carried weapons for self-defense and often come under fire, they have not served in combat since 25,000 soldiers fought in the Korean War.