WASHINGTON – Suddenly, President Bush is tangling with not one but both of his most denounced international villains: Usama bin Laden and Iraq's Saddam Hussein.
Many counterterrorism experts suspect bin Laden intentionally timed his audiotaped re-emergence, after almost a year's silence, to thrust himself into the dispute over the return of U.N. weapons inspectors to Iraq — and to try to blunt Bush's recent political gains at home and at the U.N. Security Council.
Democrats quickly seized on the tape, broadcast last week on Al Jazeera, the Arab satellite television network, as evidence that Bush's focus on Iraq is distracting him from the broader fight against terrorism.
The tape also poses potential problems for Bush with allies as he heads to Prague this week for a NATO summit — allies that might ask why Saddam is in the cross hairs when bin Laden may pose a more immediate threat.
His location unknown, the suspected mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks issued chilling threats against six U.S. allies in the four-minute tape: Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Australia and Canada.
The warnings raised fresh alarms in European capitals.
Bush administration officials and supporters suggested the bin Laden warnings could help Bush emphasize the multifaceted nature of the enemy in the global campaign against terror.
"It's important that we all band together," said State Department spokesman Richard Boucher. Suggested Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer: "It simply reinforces the Australian government's resolve and determination to be successful in the campaign against terrorism."
But others saw the tape as an unwelcome distraction for Bush just as he seemed to be winning wide support for his hardline policy against Iraq, racking up impressive GOP gains in midterm congressional elections this month and finally getting the Security Council to pass a tough resolution on weapons inspections.
White House officials, worried that Democrats may be scoring points with their criticism, sought to emphasize at week's end that Bush was not preoccupied with Iraq — but was giving priority attention to the larger battle against terrorism and to potential threats to the United States.
Addressing such concerns in his Saturday radio address, Bush said his administration was "committed to defending the nation. Yet wars are not won on the defensive."
He recited a series of achievements, including the capture of "thousands of terrorists" and freezing more than $113 million in terrorist's assets.
The bin Laden tape — which most U.S. intelligence experts believe is authentic — is vivid evidence of the administration's failure to apprehend the "evil doer" whom Bush declared last year he wanted "dead or alive" and whose "head on a platter" Vice President Dick Cheney said he would gladly accept.
Personalizing and vilifying adversaries can help rally public opinion. But it also can have unwanted consequences when the villains hang on — as Saddam has done for more than a decade, Cuba's Fidel Castro for more than four decades and now, apparently, bin Laden.
While Saddam and bin Laden are not natural allies, some analysts suggest they could become ones of convenience.
James Walsh, a Harvard terrorism expert, said U.S. pursuit of Saddam might increase his motivation to reach out to bin Laden in desperation: "We may be forcing them together to be allies because they share a common enemy."
CIA Director George Tenet raised the possibility last month that Saddam might share weapons with terror groups such as Al Qaeda if he felt cornered and about to be killed or captured.
Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, a senior Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, said that is all the more reason why Iraq should still be the next order of business in the war on terrorism.
"My concern all along has been over whether Saddam Hussein will give weapons of mass destruction to terrorists if we move on Iraq," Brownback said.
Daniel Benjamin, a White House national security aide in the Clinton administration, said that for now, bin Laden "has a great deal of contempt for Saddam Hussein as a secular Muslim leader." He suggested bin Laden's tape was a manifesto to the Islamic world that he will not yield to U.S. pressure — even if Saddam does.
Bush appeared riled last week when asked why bin Laden had not been caught by now. "I warn the American people that this is going to take time to achieve our objective," he said.
Amid the new threats, the FBI warned that that Al Qaeda may be planning a "spectacular" terrorist attack intended to damage the U.S. economy and inflict large-scale casualties.
"I don't think we can be certain of what role Usama bin Laden is or is not playing," said Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice.