WASHINGTON – Allies who strongly support the war on terror are squirming as the Bush administration debates whether Iraq should be the next target.
Russia, the Europeans and Arabs — even NATO — all have made clear they won't necessarily support military attacks on Iraq.
America must identify "real dangers rather than imaginary," Russia's prime minister said Monday after meeting with President Bush.
And Germany's deputy foreign minister, noting "the United States has old scores to settle with Iraq," warned, "This terror argument can't be used to legitimize old enmities."
U.S. officials have, in turn, made clear they would be willing to act alone. Iraq, one of three nations along with Iran and North Korea that Bush termed "an axis of evil," poses such a dangerous threat that pre-emptive action might be needed, they say.
"Absent the world, someone, pointing out the danger they pose to their own people and their neighbors, they would run free," Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said of Iraq in an interview on PBS' NewsHour Monday. "They would invade Kuwait again, to be sure. They'd invade Saudi Arabia, maybe."
At the same time, a senior Pentagon official known for his strong advocacy of attacking Iraq made clear to European allies that Bush hasn't decided what to do.
The president spoke as he did "to begin the kind of debate" that allies have raised, said Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz.
"What the president did was to identify a problem," Wolfowitz said. He added: "We are a long way from decisions about what to do."
Bush's strong words essentially sent a message to Russia and Europe: "Join us now in ratcheting up the pressure on these regimes, or watch later as we act unilaterally," said Antony Blinken, a specialist on U.S.-European relations.
For the first time since the Sept. 11 attacks, U.S. and British planes patrolling the no-fly zone over northern Iraq bombed Iraqi air defense systems on Monday in response to anti-aircraft fire. Allied planes over northern Iraq have repeatedly been fired on since Sept. 11 but had not responded with bombing until now.
Iraq has barred U.N. weapons inspectors for more than three years, and is believed to be trying to rebuild its banned weapons programs. Iraq's vice president reasserted, in an interview in a Russian newspaper Monday, that Iraq had nothing to do with the terrorist attacks on America.
The Iraqi vice president also criticized Russia for trying to persuade Iraq to allow weapons inspectors to return.
Turkey, a launching pad for strikes against Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War, also in recent days has stepped up its warnings to Iraq to allow in inspectors.
Such pressure from Turkey and Russia is a clear goal of the United States. Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, said last week that America would use its "new and budding relationship with Russia," to put pressure on Iraq, Iran and North Korea and deny them weapons technology.
Over the weekend, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov acknowledged that Iraq, Iran and North Korea might pose a threat to efforts to prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction. But Ivanov said he had "no data or information that would suggest the governments of those three countries support terrorism." Russia and Iraq have strong trade ties, and Russian officials worry that attacks would jeopardize Iraq's repayment of a $7 billion debt.
Turkey worries that if the United States attacked Iraq and the Baghdad government fell, Kurds in northern Iraq might create a Kurdish state, emboldening Kurds in Turkey.
Arab allies worry attacks on Iraq would inflame anti-American sentiment in their countries. Saudi Arabia's former intelligence chief suggested Sunday that his country might not support U.S. military attacks against Iraq, even if leader Saddam Hussein were found to be developing a nuclear weapon.
Even NATO would not automatically support U.S. efforts to expand the war on terror to Iraq, Iran or North Korea, Secretary-General Lord Robertson said last week.
And Germany's deputy foreign minister, Ludger Volmer, said flatly Monday: "There is no indication, no evidence that Iraq is involved in the terrorism we have been talking about for the last few months."
The United States insists it can go it alone, if necessary. Rice and Secretary of State Colin Powell both say Bush would consider using any aspect of U.S. power — political, diplomatic, economic or military — against countries that support terrorism and pursue weapons of mass destruction.
But Robertson said the U.S.-led fight in Afghanistan, strongly supported worldwide, has shown that no modern military operation can be undertaken by a single country. "Even superpowers need allies and coalitions to provide bases, fuel, airspace and forces," he said.