A confident US sends tougher signals

The quick ouster of Hussein emboldens Bush to take harder line against foes. More war ahead or just diplomacy?

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

US foreign policy is taking on a new tone of assertiveness in the wake of the military victory over Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq.

From threats against Syria to crowing over possible concessions by North Korea, administration officials are publicly taking a harder line against US adversaries both real and potential.

Critics worry that this is more than mere words, and that the Bush administration's stated policy of preemption of threats means that Damascus - or Tehran - might be the next Baghdad.

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But a number of other analysts believe that for many reasons, from the fatigue of US forces to the presidential election timetable, it's more likely that the months ahead will see a strategic pause. In this view, the White House may be simply trying to transmute its military victory into diplomatic leverage.

"I think it's more rhetoric than an indication of what's next on the administration's agenda," says Jeffrey Taliaferro, a foreign-policy expert at Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Medford, Mass.

Iraq: less fighting, more nation building

In Iraq itself the fighting seemed to be winding down. At time of writing US forces were pushing into Saddam Hussein's ancestral home of Tikrit.

Marines attacked Tikrit from all points of the compass on Monday and captured a key Tigris River bridge in the center of town, according to the Central Command spokesman, Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks.

US troops found few overt supporters of Mr. Hussein's now-toppled regime, but the streets and barracks of the town were littered with abandoned Republican Guard military equipment.

Elsewhere order was beginning to return slowly to Iraqi cities after days of explosive looting and lawlessness.

Iraqi police began returning to service in Basra, Baghdad, and Karbala. In the northern oil center of Kirkuk, US military personnel met with local leaders to discuss the resumption of electricity and other basic services.

The seven US prisoners of war freed on Sunday were in Kuwait for medical checkups and debriefings. They told interviewers that they had been beaten and kicked, but that their treatment had improved over time, and that they had been regularly fed and given access to healthcare.

In southern Iraq, the Army's 4th Infantry Division began rumbling up toward Baghdad and will likely serve as a security force. One soldier was killed in an apparent vehicle accident.

US Frustration over Syria

In Washington, administration officials continued to express frustration with Syria. Some top Iraqi officials are believed to have sought refuge in Damascus, and President Bush himself warned Syria not to cooperate with Iraqis who "need to be held to account," in the president's words.

Bush also said, "I think that we believe there are chemical weapons in Syria," an accusation that he himself has never made before.

Meanwhile, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad met Monday with British and Saudi envoys. Syrian officials denied that they had weapons of mass destruction and accused the US of trying to divert attention from Iraq's need for water, food, and security.

Syria's deputy ambassador to the US, Imad Moustapha, said the charges were a "campaign of misinformation and disinformation" meant to divert attention from the "human catastrophes" taking place in Iraq.

Ripple effects in North Korea?

Meanwhile, US officials also said that North Korea's apparent policy change over the weekend, in which it backed off from its demand for a nonaggression pact from the United States, among other things, were in part a reaction to the US war in Iraq.

Having seen that the US was serious about stopping the spread of weapons of mass destruction, Pyongyang has now changed its tune, according to the White House.

The administration clearly hopes that the fall of Hussein will serve as an object lesson to other dictatorships, note a number of experts. In that context the White House statements may seem somewhat belligerent, but shouldn't be surprising.

Some, such as James B. Steinberg, director of foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution, believe that it is possible that weaker states such as Syria may indeed change their behavior in months ahead.

The nuclear issue

But North Korea and Iran - both larger states that either have nuclear weapons or want them - may instead redouble efforts to acquire an atomic deterrent.

But the size of the task of stabilizing Iraq is so large that US saber-rattling isn't necessarily credible, says Jeffrey Taliaferro of Tufts University.

He sees instead a strategic pause on the part of US forces. The military is currently stretched very thin in Iraq, he notes, and mounting a summer offensive across Iraq's western desert towards Syria is unlikely to happen. Furthermore, the first presidential primaries are now less than a year away - and Washington's conventional wisdom is that the administration wouldn't want to still be fighting in the Middle East as voters go to the polls.

Pressure on Syria might serve the administration in another, less obvious way, notes Taliaferrio. The US is likely to soon renew its push for Israeli-Palestinian peace - and it might serve American purposes to keep Syria isolated and off-balance if serious negotiations begin.

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