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Boston Globe January 31, 2002

Tactics may shift vs. other foes

By Bryan Bender

If President George W. Bush wants to expand the US campaign against terrorism to Iran, Iraq, and North Korea, he will most likely use a combination of covert action, economic sanctions, and diplomatic pressure to change their behavior, administration officials and national security experts said yesterday.

The only alternative to such an incremental approach, they said, is full-scale war. That option is far riskier - and therefore less likely.

The commander-in-chief placed the governments in Baghdad, Tehran, and Pyongyang on notice in his State of the Union address Tuesday night that he considers them to be an ''axis of evil'' because of their deadly combination of weapons of mass destruction and well-documented associations with terrorist groups seeking such weapons. The president said they will be a primary focus of the campaign against terrorism in the coming months.

But the nature of these regimes, the lack of hard information on their highly secretive arsenals, and their fearsome military capabilities would make the kind of all-out assault launched in Afghanistan more problematic. Despite the president's high approval ratings, the idea makes members of Congress and military brass cringe.

Though full-scale military action is unlikely, specialists say, should action be taken, it would almost certainly be against Iraq, rather than Iran or North Korea. Iraq has been in the US crosshairs for years, and a faction within the administration is known to favor taking strong action there.

All three countries are believed to have extensive arsenals of weapons of mass destruction, and continue to seek the materials and expertise to develop more.

Iraq, under the leadership of President Saddam Hussein, continues to operate its weapons of mass destruction program, even though it was outlawed after the 1990-91 Persian Gulf War. The country is believed to have stockpiled chemical and biological weapons and is continuing its search for nuclear weapons.

''Given Iraq's past behavior, it is likely Iraq has used the period [since the Gulf War] to reconstitute prohibited programs,'' according to a recent CIA report. Its missile force, however, is believed to be small, consisting of only a handful of short-range missiles.

Iran, according to the CIA report, ''remains one of the most active countries seeking to aquire'' weapons of mass destruction. Iran has a chemical and biological weapons program, believed to include thousands of tons of poisons, the report states.

Iran is not believed to possess nuclear weapons, intelligence officials say, but seeks them as a counter to neighboring Iraq and, to a lesser extent, Israel. It has also developed - with the assistance of Russia, China, and North Korea - a capable long-range missile program that could be used to deliver chemical, biological, or nuclear warheads.

North Korea, meanwhile, is believed to have between 500 and 5,000 tons of biological weapons, and may already possess up to several nuclear bombs, US intelligence agencies have reported. With the most advanced missile force of the three, it could threaten not only South Korea and Japan, but the western edge of the United States as well.

However, North Korea's search for weapons of mass destruction and the means to deliver them is believed to be more of a diplomatic endeavor than a military one, done in the hopes that it can use them as bargaining chips to gain concessions that will prop up the regime.

But the whereabouts and quantities of these arsenals remain largely a mystery - a fact that makes it difficult for US military planners to destroy the stockpiles before the regime could use them in retaliation.

Moreover, Iran, Iraq, and North Korea have standing national militaries to be reckoned with - which was not the case in Afghanistan. North Korea ''could still give us a serious shooting war,'' said a Pentagon official, who added that both Iran and Iraq have some of the world's largest military forces.

As a result, instead of full scale war, a combination of covert action, economic santions, and diplomatic maneuvers to further isolate these countries will make up the president's war plan to roll back their weapons of mass destruction and terrorist activities and cut off their sources of materiel and equipment, specialists predict.

''What they are looking at in Iran is for the CIA to go after Iranian suppliers to Middle East terrorist groups,'' said John Pike of GlobalSecurity.org in Washington.

Representative Barney Franks - among the members of Congress voicing concern that Bush is embarking on a course that will lead the US military into a potential quagmire - predicted that Iran may soon face tighter US, and possibly international, sanctions to prod a change in its behavior.

In North Korea, however, the administration may still have an opportunity to restart the dialogue begun by the Clinton administration in an effort to bring an end to the nearly 50-year standoff on the Korean Peninsula.

''Clinton made real progress on North Korea,'' said Frank. ''They are not as crazy and suicidal as they were. Listing North Korea was the worst thing [Bush] did.''

In the case of Iran and North Korea, Russia and China will probably play a large role in US economic and diplomatic efforts to rein in their weapons of mass destruction programs.

''Russia and China are going to have to get with the program'' if they want to remain members of the US-led coalition against terrorism, said a senior defense official. Russia has taken steps in recent years to cut off exports to Iran of missiles and so-called ''dual-use'' technologies that could be used to develop weapons of mass destruction, while China has pledged to do so even as Chinese firms continue to be the target of US sanctions for dealings with Iran and North Korea.

Saddam Hussein is an entirely different story. Removing the dictator without a major military invasion is unlikely and the next major military campaign in Bush's war will probably be aimed at Baghdad.


Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.