Prime Minister Jean Chretien addressed a news conference last week about his position on war with Iraq, but some reporters went away not quite sure what that position was.

The headline in the Globe and Mail newspaper read: "PM to Bush: Hold off on War." The Toronto Star said: "Chretien Supports U.S. Push for War." The National Post later ran photos of the papers with the headline: "Canada's Position on Iraq: Which Is the Right One?"

As the United States moves closer to possible military action in Iraq, Chretien is facing increasing criticism from opposition leaders who say the government is leaving it unclear whether Canada would join a U.S.-led war.

In the House of Commons on Tuesday, Chretien received a barrage of questions about whether Canada would support a war without a second resolution by the U.N. Security Council. Each time, he deflected the question, saying that Canada was waiting for U.N. weapons inspectors, led by Hans Blix, to complete their work.

"When [Blix] reports" later, Chretien told the House of Commons, "we will be in a position to react."

Stephen Harper, leader of the conservative opposition party Canadian Alliance, criticized Chretien, saying: "The government and the prime minister should not be spectators. The government should have its own opinion on what is happening in this situation. We never used to be spectators. . . . Is the government prepared to stand with the allied coalition to seek enforcement" of the United Nations' will?

Canada has long called the United States its closest friend and ally. Canadian troops last year fought alongside Americans in Afghanistan. At the same time, no Canadian prime minister wants to appear too willing to do Washington's bidding, preferring instead to press the country's role as an international conciliator that sends troops to peacekeeping operations all over the world.

"There is a Canadian fantasy that we are a significant player in the world and our foreign policy is led by moral values," said Rudyard Griffiths, chief executive officer of the Dominion Institute, a research organization.

"The government is trying to straddle the fantasy world and reality," he said. "Their reality is there is very little we can contribute. But the sense is the Americans need us a lot and we have potential to build up political capital."

Some political analysts say Chretien is in fact doing exactly what Canadians as a whole want. "The prime minister is playing a careful diplomatic game which has his finger on the pulse of Canadian public opinion," said John Wright, senior vice president at Ipsos-Reid, a polling company. "He doesn't have to be unequivocal because the Canadian public does not want an unequivocal answer at the moment."

Recent opinion polls show that a majority of Canadians are skeptical about unilateral U.S. action in Iraq. Fifty-two percent of those responding to an Ipsos-Reid survey did not approve of U.S. military action to remove President Saddam Hussein from power. Sixty-two percent said Canada should provide military assistance in a war against Iraq only if the United Nations, "and not just the United States, decides that such a situation is required."

The poll showed that many Canadians are more concerned about the United States than about Iraq. The poll found that 36 percent of respondents think the United States is the biggest threat to world peace, not Iraq, al Qaeda or North Korea.

Some experts say that Chretien's lack of clarity is a political ploy and that Canada will side with the United States in the end. John Kirton, a political science professor at the University of Toronto, said he believed Bush and Chretien talked about a Canadian military contribution to a war against Iraq when the two met recently in Detroit.

"There was a deal done: 'George, if you do it through the United Nations, then Canada will be with you militarily,' " Kirton said. "And to date, the record is Bush has done it through the United Nations."

Kirton and others say that in recent years there has been a quiet shift in Canada's foreign policy away from peacekeeping. But Kirton said Canadians continue to like the "great morality play: the wicked American, the unilateralist cowboys going off shooting people around the world," while thinking of themselves as "multilateralists, U.N.-loving, peacekeeping and give-diplomacy-a-chance."

Starting with the Persian Gulf War in 1991, Canada has been engaging in actual combat, he said. Canadian warplanes flew combat missions during NATO's 1999 air campaign in Yugoslavia. In Afghanistan, "we could have put forces in downtown Kabul" as peacekeepers, he said. "But no, we wanted to be in Kandahar and kill people."

Prime Minister Jean Chretien deflected questions in the House of Commons about whether Canada would support a war, saying he was waiting for U.N. inspectors to finish their work.