After Afghanistan: Is Iraq next?

From Canada to Cairo, world leaders are balking at US talk of widening the war on terrorists to include Iraq.

European and other world leaders are firing public warning shots across Washington's bow, urgently seeking to forestall any move to make Iraq the next target in the US war on terrorists.

"All European nations would view a widening of the conflict with great scepticism, and that is putting it diplomatically," German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer told the Bundestag on Wednesday. It would be "irresponsible to look for new targets."

"The evidence against Al Qaeda and the Taliban was overwhelming and of a scope needing military intervention, but there is nothing yet to suggest this will be needed in the future" elsewhere, added a well- placed British government official.

The calls for restraint, echoed from Canada to Cairo, reflect fears that the international coalition against terrorism would collapse, and the Middle East be plunged into greater turmoil, if Washington took military action against Iraq. Some of President Bush's most senior advisers are reportedly urging him to take the war on terrorism to Iraq, once the campaign in Afghanistan has ended. On Monday, President Bush upped the pressure on Baghdad to allow United Nations weapons inspectors back in. Asked what he would do if President Saddam Hussein balked, Mr. Bush replied cryptically that "he'll find out."

That apparent threat of bellicose action rang alarm bells in chancelleries around Europe.

Aside from Afghanistan, "there is no other nation whose leaders have been active accomplices of terrorist actions," French defense minister Alain Richard said during a visit to Bulgaria. "So we do not believe that it is today necessary to take military action against other sites."

"In particular, we should be very careful about discussing new targets in the Middle East," argued German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, addressing parliament. "More could blow up around our ears than any of us are able to deal with."

In London, Prime Minister Tony Blair was somewhat more cautious. "I have always said there would be two phases of this operation. The first is in Afghanistan, and our military action is focused in Afghanistan," he told Parliament on Wednesday. "The second is, in a deliberative and considered way, to take what action we can against international terrorism in all its forms."

British Defense Minister Geoff Hoon told a parliamentary committee, meanwhile, that in countries where the government is too weak to stop terrorists operating from its territory, an "invasive military response" might be needed.

But he stressed that the British government had seen no evidence linking Iraq to Al Qaeda.

Mr. Bush's remarks about Iraq also drew a swift response from Arab leaders. Any attack on an Arab country would have "dangerous repercussions" in the Middle East, warned Amr Moussa, secretary general of the Arab League.

Speaking in Washington, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher said a US assault on Iraq "will have a negative impact all over. We believe it would be a mistake, particularly at this moment, to resort to using force against Iraq."

Such a move "would surely mean the end of the great alliance against terrorism," predicted Gernot Erler, deputy parliamentary leader of the ruling Social Democratic Party in Germany.

Bush's implicit threat against Iraq was seen as especially worrying abroad because he appeared to broaden the justification for the use of military force. Rather than tying it to evidence that Baghdad has ties to Al Qaeda, the president talked more generally about the dangers of Iraq possessing nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons that it could pass to future terrorists.

In a new bid to curb Iraq's alleged development of such weapons, the United Nations Security Council was due yesterday to renew sanctions on Iraq for another six months.

Washington's partners see a stricter sanctions regime - not the threat of military force - as the most acceptable way to press Saddam Hussein to allow weapons inspectors to certify that he is not developing weapons of mass destruction.

"I do not foresee any change in the current situation," the British official said.

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