The U.S.-led effort to free Kuwait from Iraqi occupation continues to draw firm support in Europe amid indications of wavering American public opinion and despite President Saddam Hussein's attempts to drive wedges into the anti-Iraqi coalition by selective hostage releases.
This conclusion emerges from a survey of European officials and media by Washington Post correspondents and is buttressed by a recently published Gallup poll that shows an average of 70 percent of those polled in Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Spain support the use of force to free Kuwait if necessary.
But the informal Post survey indicates that while confidence is high in much of Europe that the United States would prevail quickly in a military clash with Iraq, there is also concern in official circles about Washington's ability to manage the political aftermath in the Arab world of a successful military campaign.
"We need to be sure before moving militarily that the conditions needed to protect friendly regimes in the region are already in place," said a British official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "This is an explosive region, and we need to limit the fallout of military action on our friends there. That is part of the reason we have been glad to see Washington take the time to get this right."
"The United States and its allies clearly have the power to make the Iraqi army collapse in Kuwait in a few days," said a French official. "But what then? Do we stop at the border and hope that the defeat in Kuwait and an international arms embargo would be enough to contain Iraq? My guess is that is what France would urge on the United States at that point if the hostages were released. But what would the U.S. war aims be then? This is not clear."
Discussions with officials in London, Paris and Rome suggested that the important European partners in the anti-Saddam coalition generally share U.S. aims in the current confrontation stage as they have been stated by the Bush administration. These officials indicate that they view military action against Iraq as inevitable and politically sustainable in their countries.
The Gallup poll, conducted between Oct. 1 and 10, lends support to that view. In Britain, 86 percent of the 500 persons polled said they would back force to free Kuwait if sanctions fail, while 75 percent expressed that view in France, 66 percent in Spain and 59 percent in Italy.
Even in Germany, which has not sent any military contingents to the Persian Gulf theater and where the media has been less supportive of the U.S.-led effort than is the case in other European countries, 63 percent of those polled said they would support force.
The gulf crisis has been overshadowed in Germany by unification on Oct. 3 and the beginning of the campaign for national elections to be held Dec. 2. The government in Bonn has sought to minimize press coverage of West German hostages held by Iraq and persuaded former chancellor Willy Brandt to cancel a trip to Baghdad that might have resulted in hostage releases and publicity.
The Gallup poll, which was commissioned by the London-based Association for a Free Kuwait and has a margin of error of 5 percent, also found an average of 67 percent across the five countries for using force to protect the West's oil supplies. In Britain, the figure was 78 percent.
This poll was published in Europe last week as three polls in the United States showed public support for President Bush's handling of the confrontation with Iraq slipping 15 to 20 percent. The U.S. polls still showed a majority of Americans supporting Bush's policies.
The American commitment of 240,000 soldiers, compared with about 30,000 European soldiers, means that Americans would suffer proportionately higher casualties in the event of war.
"The Iraqi army has only about 170,000 real soldiers," maintained a French official who has spent much of the last decade working on Iraqi military affairs. The balance of the estimated force of 1 million men in uniform "are poorly trained and equipped," this official said.
"Saddam has to know that from the first minute of attack he will not be able to be in touch with the troops in Kuwait and they will have to decide on their own what to do. But the Iraqis do have a strong second-strike capability with artillery and chemical weapons and 80 to 90 Mirage F-1 fighter bombers based in Iraq. If these weapons survive a preemptive strike, American troops will pay a heavy price."
Europe's long connections with and support for friendly Arab regimes are factors in shaping differences in emphasis between Washington and European capitals on ultimate war aims.
"We have been quicker to emphasize the need for a general peace conference to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict once Saddam's invasion is reversed because we are concerned about the way Palestinian guerrilla groups will strike against Arab governments that help us," said a British official. "Another measure of damage control would be complete United Nations authority for a military action, although we agree with Washington that we already have sufficient authority if need be."
France, with 4.5 million residents of Arab origin, appears to feel that a quick, decisive military strike, followed by new Western efforts to convene an international peace conference to resolve Israeli-Palestinian differences, is the best course.
Fear that an American military operation could be too successful from the standpoint of France's commercial interests generates some public opposition to the gulf operation, officials in Paris acknowledge.
"There are those who fear that America is simply entrenching itself in the oil countries of the gulf for the next half century and will leave no room for us to operate there," said one senior official. "That of course would be a war aim we could not go along with."
Correspondents Glenn Frankel in London, William Drozdiak in Paris and Marc Fisher in Bonn contributed to this article.