WASHINGTON -- President Bush said Monday that Iraq and other nations that develop weapons of mass destruction "will be held accountable," his strongest warning yet that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein could be the next target in the war against terrorism.
Although Bush stopped short of threatening military action, he said Hussein will learn the consequences if he continues to block United Nations weapons inspectors from entering Iraq.
"Hussein ... needs to let inspectors back in his country to show us that he is not developing weapons of mass destruction," Bush told reporters at the White House.
More broadly, Bush suggested the administration may target nations such as Iraq or North Korea that could provide chemical, biological and nuclear weapons to al-Qaida or other terrorist groups. "Part of the war on terror is to deny terrorists weapons," Bush said.
White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, peppered later with questions about Bush's remarks, said that the president was not signaling a broadening of the war against terrorism or delivering a new ultimatum to Iraq.
"It's a reaffirmation, a restatement of long-standing American policy," Fleischer said.
But several analysts said Bush's comments could signal an effort to justify eventual military action against Iraq if Hussein does not permit the return of the U.N. weapons inspectors. In that sense, the comments might be analogous to Bush's ultimatum in September, when he warned the Taliban to surrender Osama bin Laden or "share ... (his) fate."
"He is putting Hussein on notice and he has signaled where the policy is heading very directly," said Gary J. Schmitt, executive director of the Project for a New American Century, a Washington think tank. Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, D-Conn., who has urged Bush to press for Hussein's overthrow, welcomed the president's comments as "exactly the right policy direction to go in to protect the U.S. from another major terrorist attack."
Bush's sharp words followed a recent escalation by other administration officials in the rhetoric aimed at Iraq. Last week, a senior State Department official accused Iraq, North Korea and three other nations of pursuing biological weapons programs. A day earlier, White House National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice publicly declared, "The world would clearly be better (off) ... if Saddam Hussein were not in power in Iraq."
One senior official said Monday the administration remained focused on Afghanistan and was not planning any immediate military action against Iraq. But he added that Bush "has chosen to leave his options open" in his response about the potential consequences of continued Iraqi intransigence over inspection.
Iraq has barred inspections from U.N. officials since the United States and England launched airstrikes against its weapons facilities and other military targets in December 1998. In December 1999, the United Nations demanded the resumption of inspections. Since taking office last January, the Bush administration has repeatedly called on Hussein to honor that resolution.
In his comments Monday, Bush also appeared to expand the list of reasons why nations could face U.S. military or diplomatic action in the war on terrorism. Previously, in his major addresses on terrorism, Bush has said that the United States would regard as a "hostile regime ... any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism."
On Monday, Bush repeated, but broadened, that warning. "If anybody harbors a terrorist, they're terrorists," he said. "If they house terrorists, they're terrorists. ... If they develop weapons of mass destruction that will be used to terrorize nations, they will be held accountable."
Bush, in several recent speeches, has warned that terrorists are attempting to acquire weapons of mass destruction. But Monday's comments were his most explicit warning to the nations that might conceivably supply such weapons.
Bush's remarks came amid an intensifying international and domestic debate over how to deal with Iraq. In the United States, as the Taliban regime has crumbled in Afghanistan, a chorus of conservatives has urged Bush to target Hussein as the next step in the war on terrorism.
Abroad, the administration is attempting to toughen international sanctions aimed at compelling Iraq to abandon its programs for developing weapons of mass destruction.
Even as Bush spoke Monday, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell was lobbying Russian Foreign Minister Igor S. Ivanov on the administration's push to stiffen the sanctions against Iraq, the State Department said.
With British support, the administration has sought for months to replace the existing U.N. sanctions against Iraq -- which allows Hussein to trade oil for food and medicine -- with new restrictions that would allow more consumer goods into Iraq but toughen controls on military imports. Russia blocked that proposal last summer.
The discussions have acquired new urgency because the existing U.N. sanctions expire on Friday.
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