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Bush Warns Iraq On Weapons

By Ronald Brownstein
LOS ANGELES TIMES -- washington

President Bush said Monday that Iraq and other nations that develop weapons of mass destruction “will be held accountable,” his strongest warning yet that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein could be the next target in the war against terrorism.

Although Bush stopped short of threatening military action, he said Hussein will learn the consequences if he continues to block United Nations weapons inspectors from entering Iraq.

“Hussein ... needs to let inspectors back in his country to show us that he is not developing weapons of mass destruction,” Bush told reporters at the White House.

More broadly, Bush suggested the administration may target nations such as Iraq or North Korea that could provide chemical, biological and nuclear weapons to al-Qaida or other terrorist groups. “Part of the war on terror is to deny terrorists weapons,” Bush said.

White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, peppered later with questions about Bush’s remarks, said that the president was not signaling a broadening of the war against terrorism or delivering a new ultimatum to Iraq.

“It’s a reaffirmation, a restatement of long-standing American policy,” Fleischer said.

But several analysts said Bush’s comments could signal an effort to justify eventual military action against Iraq if Hussein does not permit the return of the U.N. weapons inspectors. In that sense, the comments might be analogous to Bush’s ultimatum in September, when he warned the Taliban to surrender Osama bin Laden or “share ... (his) fate.”

“He is putting Hussein on notice and he has signaled where the policy is heading very directly,” said Gary J. Schmitt, executive director of the Project for a New American Century, a Washington think tank. Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, D-Conn., who has urged Bush to press for Hussein’s overthrow, welcomed the president’s comments as “exactly the right policy direction to go in to protect the U.S. from another major terrorist attack.”

Bush’s sharp words followed a recent escalation by other administration officials in the rhetoric aimed at Iraq. Last week, a senior State Department official accused Iraq, North Korea and three other nations of pursuing biological weapons programs. Earlier, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said, “The world would clearly be better (off) ... if Saddam Hussein were not in power in Iraq.”