'Evil axis' and others talk back

State of Union raises hackles worldwide, even among allies.

President Bush's stark warning to "dangerous" regimes he accuses of supporting terrorism - Iraq, Iran, and North Korea - was jarring to many nations, including some of America's allies.

"The US has now made the formal shift from operations in Afghanistan to potential operations in the Middle East," says Nigel Vinson, a military analyst at the Royal United Services Institute, a London-based think tank. "This is a significant ratcheting up of the pressure on Iraq."

But the US president's speech does not signal an immediate military attack on any of the three countries he named, according to a senior US administration official and foreign observers.

In light of the political and logistical hurdles, "we are still an awful long way" from any out- and-out assault on President Saddam Hussein of Iraq, widely seen as the most likely next target in the US war against terrorism, says Mr. Vinson.

Bush warned in his speech that he would not allow "the world's most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world's most dangerous weapons," singling out Iraq, Iran, and North Korea, along with their "terrorist allies," as "an axis of evil."

He also warned other countries where he said terrorist cells were hidden. "Some governments will be timid in the face of terror. And make no mistake about it: If they do not act, America will," the president said.

That stung Philippines Defense Minister Angelo Reyes, currently overseeing his army's cooperation with a team of US military advisers helping to fight the extremist Muslim group Abu Sayyaf, into a sharp retort.

"We are a self-respecting sovereign state," he said, "and we will not allow any other country to impose its will on us if it is against our national interest."

The US president's speech also upset South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, who is anxious to improve ties with his communist neighbor to the North. "It is important to maintain a peaceful atmosphere in North-South relations," he told his cabinet yesterday.

It was Bush's reference to the Middle East, however, that drew most international attention, in the wake of his earlier unspecified threats against Iraq should President Saddam Hussein continue to refuse to allow United Nations inspectors into the country in search of weapons of mass destruction.

"We reject the US accusations and we think that the world will not tolerate the hegemony of the US," said Kamal Kharrazi, foreign minister of Iran.

Iraqi retort

A leading Iraqi politician was equally blunt. Salem al-Qubaissi, head of the Iraqi parliament's foreign affairs committee, accused Washington of "terrorism against peoples and governments that do not surrender to US wishes," according to Agence France-Presse.

A military attack on Iraq would seriously strain the international coalition that Washington has built in support of its war on terrorism. European and Middle Eastern leaders have publicly cautioned Bush against taking such a step.

But the United States "even if it would prefer a coalition ... does not require any military assistance from anyone in the world" for such an operation, Vinson points out.

Logistically, however, an attempt to dislodge Saddam from power would require an invasion of Iraq that would take months to prepare, military experts say. An assault would also be complicated by Saudi Arabia's likely reluctance to let US forces use its territory.

Politically too, Washington would need some time to prepare domestic and international opinion for such a dramatic move.

A UN Security Council vote at the end of May on continuing sanctions and demanding that weapons inspectors be allowed into Iraq appears to be the next marker along the diplomatic road.

"If the Americans get a unanimous Security Council resolution through, they would be in a much stronger position" to act against a recalcitrant Iraq, says Toby Dodge, a Middle East expert at the Royal Institute for International Affairs in London.

If Bush's antagonism to Iraq Tuesday was of a piece with earlier policy, his attack on Iran surprised observers, who had noted a slight thaw in relations between Tehran and Washington since September 11th. Iranian leaders had offered their support for the war against terrorism.

"It was not a very considered statement," says one European diplomat in Tehran. "I was surprised by the tone of it, which seemed to be pandering to the hard-line tone of the war on terrorism rather than a considered view of Iran's place in the world. It was not very helpful."

Iran apparently earned its place in the "axis of evil" partly by virtue of its support for Hizbullah, a Shia Muslim group based in Lebanon which made its reputation with attacks on Israeli troops in South Lebanon, and which is now a legal political party with seats in the Lebanese parliament.

On Wednesday, Hizbullah rejected Bush's accusation that it belongs to a "terrorist underworld."

"The Bush administration is planning to defeat all the centers of force in the region to make the whole Middle East a juicy morsel for the joint American-Israeli ambitions," the group said in a statement.

• Nicholas Blanford in Beirut, Michael Theodoulou in Nicosia, Cyrpus, and Roger DuMars in Seoul contributed to this report.

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