WASHINGTON – Several U.S. lawmakers, emboldened by American military success in Afghanistan, began beating the drum Sunday for quick action to oust Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
Saddam should be removed, and soon, Democratic Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut said Sunday. "He is a time bomb," Lieberman, a 2000 vice presidential candidate, said.
"We know that he has the means or the motivation to do us harm," he said. "We know that he has weapons, chemical and biological weapons. We have reason to believe he is developing nuclear weapons."
Meanwhile, countries like Iran that President Bush has accused of encouraging terrorism said they were still ruffled at the eagerness some U.S. lawmakers have expressed about targeting them and have grown increasingly angry over the president's controversial "axis of evil" characterization of them in his State of the Union speech.
"What we have experienced in the past couple of weeks has been a great deal of U.S. rhetoric, outright animosity and hostility, that has been put by various U.S. officials against my country," Javad Zarif, Iran's deputy foreign minister for international affairs, said on Fox News Sunday.
Zarif bristled at the president's threatening language, but still pledged cooperation in keeping Al Qaeda terrorists out of his country.
Al Qaeda terrorists, Zarif said, are "enemies" of Iran and if any are found in his country, "we will return them to their own countries or to the government of Afghanistan."
Early in the anti-terror campaign led by the U.S., Iran indicated it would cooperate with American leaders on fighting the war to eradicate terrorism — despite the fact that such a pledge made the country vulnerable to violence and animosity from its Mideast neighbors.
Bush's comments — which lumped Iran, Iraq and North Korea together as a terrorist-friendly network posing a threat to international security — continue to resonate through Capitol Hill, the U.S. and around the world almost two weeks after their delivery.
North Korea called off a visit by a group of former U.S. ambassadors in reaction to Bush's harsh words, according to two members of the unofficial delegation. The trip had been arranged at North Korea's invitation as a way to expand informal dialogue.
Lieberman, like many in Congress and apparently Bush himself, does not think all three "axis" countries pose equal threats or deserve the same response.
There are "different gradations" of what the United States should do, the senator said.
North Korea can be dealt with diplomatically, the Iranians "need us to be very tough" and in Iraq, Saddam can't remain in power, he said.
Democratic Sen. Bob Graham of Florida, Senate Intelligence Committee chairman, agreed with Lieberman's portrayal of Iraq, saying on NBC's Meet the Press that Saddam was an "evil force." But he cautioned that the focus should remain on actual terrorist organizations and national security, or else America might lose coalition allies.
"He should be taken out at some point," Graham said. "My question is, is this the time to do it? Shouldn't we be focusing on completing the war on terrorism?"
Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, also suggested caution and subtlety questioned Bush's chosen rhetoric.
"I think we are better off, as Teddy Roosevelt once said, to speak softly and carry a big stick," he said on ABC's This Week. "We carry a big stick, there's no question about that."
But Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, saw confrontation with Iraq as all but inevitable.
"These are strong signals of things to come, if these people don't shape up," he said. "I think, ultimately, we'll be confronted with these people, probably in some kind of war."
U.S. allies are nervous about American intentions for Iraq and hope Washington will not act unilaterally or hastily.
German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, in an interview appearing Monday in a German newspaper, placed stock in assurances he said Bush gave him personally.
"Bush told me that he harbors no attack plans," he told Handelsblatt. "I am relying on that."
Bush publicly will not discuss his next steps against Iraq but has ruled nothing out. Privately, White House officials say large-scale military action against Iraq is not imminent and has not been plotted.
But there is plenty coming out of Washington to keep everyone off balance.
At two congressional hearings last week, Secretary of State Colin Powell said Bush is exploring "the most serious set of options that one might imagine" against Iraq.
Lieberman specifically endorsed efforts to have Iraqi opposition groups pry Saddam from power — a course that has so far borne no fruit. But he also cited America's military successes in Afghanistan as a lesson for those who believe U.S. forces would only get bogged down in Iraq.
As for Iran, officials there offered one conciliatory gesture when they announced they had closed the offices of former Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar in Tehran and Mashhad. Hekmatyar, who is living in exile in Iran, opposes Afghanistan's interim government led by Hamid Karzai and the strong U.S. role in that country.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.