The Pentagon is working out how it would use nuclear weapons against of a number of countries that threaten the United States, military officials have told Congress.

The Pentagon says it needs to be prepared to use nuclear weapons against China, Russia, Iraq, North Korea, Iran, Libya and Syria, according to the Los Angeles Times.

The plans are merely a contingency and do not mean that America is more likely to use nuclear weapons or even that there's been a change in policy, a senior U.S. official said Saturday. The fact that the Pentagon is working out details for a nuclear strategy simply reflects that the U.S. military has long been aware and is still aware that "there are threats out there," the official said on condition of anonymity. The official said it was not a plan for action but of policy.

The posture review "greatly expands the potential use of nuclear weapons," said the head of a watchdog group interested in nuclear proliferation issues.

"For 56 years, the world has avoided nuclear weapons use despite many grave crises. The Bush administration is now dangerously lowering the threshold for wreaking nuclear devastation," John Isaacs, president of the Council for a Livable World, said.

Congressional sources said the Pentagon sent a report on the plans to the Armed Services, Intelligence and Foreign Relations committees in early January, as has been the practice for the past several years.

The Times reported Saturday that contingency plans are to be prepared for at least seven nations and that the report calls for building new smaller nuclear weapons for use in certain battlefield situations. The weapons could be used in three types of situations: against targets able to withstand nuclear attack; in retaliation for attack with nuclear, biological or chemical weapons; or "in the event of surprising military developments," the newspaper quoted the review as saying. 

The nuclear posture review typically names countries, the U.S. official told The Associated Press. But the official would not confirm which countries are on the current list and whether any have been added or dropped from previous years.

The United States years ago said it no longer was targeting its missiles at Russia and China. Critics have questioned whether that was a meaningful move because warheads can be retargeted quickly.

In Russia, Dmitry Rogozin, who heads parliament's foreign affairs committee and has close ties to the Kremlin, told NTV television that his country "should understand that a significant part of the United States' nuclear forces are of course aimed at objects in the Russian Federation, and we should draw our own strategic conclusions from this."

The fact that Iraq, Syria and Libya have been identified as potential targets could complicate the trip Vice President Dick Cheney was to begin Sunday to the Persian Gulf and Middle East.

Cheney's going to strengthen support among Arab leaders for the U.S.-led campaign against terrorism. Most are vehemently opposed to attacks on any Arab countries, including those the United States long has accused of fostering terrorism and seeking weapons of mass destruction.

Secretary of State Colin Powell and other senior administration officials have publicly said that there are no plans on President Bush's desk for attacking Iraq or any other nation.

The Pentagon, in a report to Congress in the fall, said it was considering the possibility of developing a low-yield nuclear device that would be able to destroy deeply buried stockpiles of chemical or biological weapons. Such a move would require Congress to lift a ban on designing new nuclear warheads.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.