PRIME Minister Margaret Thatcher's decision to back the United States action in the Gulf with British planes and naval ships has won overwhelming public support. As 24 Royal Air Force Tornado and Jaguar jets flew to positions in or near Saudi Arabia to join US forces already there, public opinion polls revealed that more than 9 out of 10 Britons wholeheartedly approved a naval blockade of Iraq, with nearly as many backing the dispatch of British forces.
A Gallup Poll revealed that Britain's task force has stronger public approval than when Mrs. Thatcher ordered a military confrontation in 1982 with Argentina, after its seizure of the Falkland Islands in the south Atlantic.
A poll conducted for London's Sunday Correspondent newspaper showed a 4-to-1 majority favoring war if Iraqi President Saddam Hussein launched an attack against Saudi Arabia.
Public support in Britain for the American-led, United Nations approved police action in the Gulf appeared stronger than in any other European Community (EC) country. In West Germany, informal soundings of the public were said by a diplomatic source in Bonn to display a ``more restrained'' reaction. People were preoccupied with moves to unify the two German states, the source said.
In France, which has sent nearly 3,500 men on board seven warships to Gulf waters but has made no commitment to station forces in Saudi Arabia, diplomatic sources said President Fran,cois Mitterrand's caution is finding approval with the public.
Thatcher's rapid and forthright response to President Bush's call for concerted international action was in line with her usual readiness to back the US at times of military emergency. It also reflected her freedom of political action in making decisions on defense and foreign policy matters. The British Parliament is currently in recess. Thatcher last week called an emergency Cabinet meeting, which authorized the urgent dispatch of forces to the Gulf.
By contrast, West Germany's Constitution prevents it from taking military action outside the NATO area. On Friday, a Bonn Foreign Ministry spokesman said: ``We have no desire to play the world policeman.''
It was reported on Thursday that when Thatcher urged the Italian prime minister to take decisive action in the Gulf, he responded that the government first needed parliamentary approval. The Spanish government told NATO it is ready to send naval units to join the international task force, Italian Foreign Minister Gianni de Michelis said Saturday.
This mixed set of responses found reflection at Friday's emergency meetings in Brussels of EC and NATO foreign ministers, which was attended by James Baker III, the US secretary of state.
Both organizations threw their support behind President Bush's actions and endorsed the UN Security Council condemnation of Iraq's seizure of Kuwait. But neither NATO nor the EC found it possible to follow this up with coordinated military action.
Manfred W"orner, NATO's secretary-general, said that because the hostilities were occurring outside the alliance's area, there could be no action under NATO integrated command structures.
A British official said after the Brussels meeting: ``The two bodies are not structured to act outside Europe. In fact, the amount of agreement achieved was considerable, given the limitations on NATO and EC action.'' He dismissed suggestions that the continental Europeans were ``navel-gazing.''
Thatcher's determination to come to the support of the US in the Gulf reflected her government's fears that, unless urgent action was taken, spiraling oil prices would wreck plans to bring British inflation down.