LONDON -- Britain will become the first NATO ally to send major ground troops to the Persian Gulf when Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher dispatches a combat force, expected to include tanks, tomorrow.
Responding to a U.S. appeal for increased allied involvement on the ground, Mrs. Thatcher has ordered her defense chiefs to draw up plans for the latest British contribution to the confrontation with Iraq.
It took Britain just 24 hours to decide to act.
The British already have ships and aircraft in the gulf and a small number of ground troops, basically for defense of their bases there.
The anticipated commitment of tanks, infantry and artillery to the front line is exactly the sort of allied involvement that President Bush has been pushing for.
This contrasts with the hesitant response from most other North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies to an appeal this week from Secretary of State James A. Baker III for even "token" ground forces.
The British have led the way in backing the U.S.-led military buildup since the crisis erupted Aug. 2, earning Mrs. Thatcher particular praise from Mr. Bush as a reliable friend.
British defense officials said yesterday that the makeup of the new force was still under study, but one explained: "We are looking at making a contribution which is significant in military terms, a contribution which is capable of having its own internal credibility."
The official refused to confirm reports that Britain would send a 4,000-strong armored brigade detached from duty with the British Army of the Rhine in West Germany.
"One official said that it could be "a mix and match" force from various ground units but that whatever its makeup, it would be "a force that has some credibility on its own."
The decision to send more troops has won broad support from the political opposition here.
Gerald Kaufman, foreign affairs spokesman for the Labor Party, told the British Broadcasting Corp.: "If that is what is required as part of our response under Article 51 of the United Nations Charter to Saudi Arabia's request for assistance in her defense, then that is something that must be done."
Paddy Ashdown, leader of the Liberal Democrats, said, "I have always taken the view that having rightly sent the Navy and RAF, it is perfectly right for the government to consider and send further troops to the gulf, when it becomes necessary."