WASHINGTON (AP) _ Reflecting America's minimal role in the international peacekeeping mission, the Pentagon said only two American soldiers were in East Timor on Tuesday. The U.S. contingent standing by in Australia was expected to be near its full strength of 200 by Wednesday.

P. J. Crowley, deputy assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, said the Americans would remain in Darwin until the Australian commander of the U.N.-authorized force, Maj. Gen. Peter Cosgrove, decides they are needed in East Timor.

``It's off to a very smooth start,'' Crowley told a Pentagon briefing as Wednesday dawned in East Timor with about 3,000 international peacekeepers on the ground and 500 more expected during the day. He said no resistance or violence had been reported.

About half the U.S. force is expected to be used in the region, which has been plagued by violence since its residents voted overwhelmingly Aug. 30 to break away from Indonesia. The U.S. force mostly includes specialists in communications, supply and intelligence with no combat troops.

``We're set to go whenever the commander feels those capabilities are needed,'' Crowley said.

Meanwhile, President Clinton authorized U.S. military assistance worth up to $55 million to states participating in the East Timor mission.

Clinton also asked to sit next to Portugal's President Jorge Sampaio at a United Nations luncheon Tuesday hosted by Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

``I said that it was very important for the United States to be present in the peacekeeping force,'' Sampio said later, recalling his conversation with Clinton. ``I personally think that the United States presence _ although qualified presence, it doesn't have to be a very big number _ is very important.''

A Marine liaison officer and a public affairs officer were the only U.S. military personnel in East Timor on Tuesday, after the U.S. force commander, Marine Brig. Gen. John G. Castellaw, spent a day checking out the area.

Castellaw and four other marines had returned to Darwin where the U.S. force reached 140. Another 50 U.S. soldiers from around the Pacific were expected by Wednesday. And 14 civil affairs personnel left Fort Bragg, N.C., for Darwin on Tuesday.

In addition to the ground force, 527 American personnel were aboard two U.S. Navy ships in the area _the guided missile cruiser USS Mobile Bay and the ammunition ship USNS Kilavea. Personnel on the Mobile Bay have been using the ship's communications and other facilities to help control the airlift of soldiers from Australia to East Timor, Crowley said.

Three U.S. helicopters were available on the ships for possible use in East Timor and a Marine KC130 cargo plane had made at least one flight carrying Australians into the region, Crowley said. Three other U.S. transport planes also were in Darwin for the operation.

The Americans have stockpiled 300,000 humanitarian daily rations in Darwin, and Crowley said he expects U.S. soldiers to work with nongovernment groups when it is safe for private relief workers to return to East Timor.