The US may be forced to call up more reserve and National Guard troops to serve in Iraq because of the reluctance of other countries to send forces, US defense officials said on Wednesday.
General Peter Pace, vice-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters that the Pentagon would need to alert reserve troops in the next four to six weeks unless a multinational division of 10,000 to 15,000 troops was pledged before then.
But US hopes for winning international support appeared to be waning in the wake of the tepid response to President George W. Bush's call at the United Nations on Tuesday for more international assistance.
Donald Rumsfeld, US defense secretary, told a congressional committee on Wednesday: "We're not going to get a lot of international troops with or without a UN resolution."
The call-up of additional reserve and guard troops to maintain the 130,000-strong US force in Iraq could further weaken domestic popular support for the US role in Iraq.
Most reserve and guard troops are married men with families and regular jobs and the long deployments in Iraq are already straining morale.
Senator Ernest Hollings, a South Carolina Democrat, warned: "It's not going to fly having the majority of the Reserves and the Guard on duty in Iraq. I don't know how you can do it."
The US currently has 170,000 reservists called up, down from a maximum of 223,000 at the height of the Iraq war. But the number is still far greater than the 50,000 who were called up to secure US airports and borders after the September 11 attacks.
The US is still hoping that allies such as Pakistan, Turkey and South Korea will form a third multinational division of 15,000 troops to serve alongside the UK and Polish divisions. That would reduce the US need to call up more active or reserve forces to maintain the current military strength in Iraq.
"We have every hope that that will happen," said General Pace. "But hope is not a plan."
Mr Rumsfeld and senior military officials said they are now looking to the rapid training of an Iraqi army and police force as the quickest way to reduce the need for US forces. General John Abizaid, who commands the US forces in Iraq, said the most important element now "is the ability of Iraqis to take care of the security situation."
He said the best possible scenario would be that Iraqi capabilities improve enough to allow some reduction in US forces next year. "It's not impossible to believe that could happen next year, provided there's not a spike in violence that is unanticipated."
Mr Rumsfeld, who was testifying in defense of the administration's $87bn budget request to Congress, said the US had no choice but to bear the costs of victory in Iraq.
"We believe it is necessary for the security of our country and the stability of the world," he said. "The price of sending terrorists the message that we're not willing to spend what it takes, that we value comfort or money more than freedom, would be far greater."
© Copyright The Financial Times Ltd 2003