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In Focus

Administration mulling future fronts

By John King
CNN Senior White House Correspondent

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Several senior officials said that although the administration has been in discussions about future fronts and strategies in the war on terrorism, the effort will be focused on Afghanistan for the foreseeable future. One spoke of "an obsessive" media focus on Iraq.

"It is understandable that people ask 'What next?' and it would be irresponsible if the president and others were not working through that," said one senior White House official. "But people need to understand there is a lot more work to be done in Afghanistan and that is and will be where the overwhelming focus is."

The U.S. President wants Iraq to let weapons inspectors back into the country. CNN's John King reports (November 27)

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That said, this official said international efforts to track down and freeze assets tied to terrorist groups and to round up suspected members of terrorist cells have received little public attention. "This is a war already being waged in many ways in many countries," this official said.

Tough talk on Iraq

The official, however, conceded the president has raised questions about the war's future fronts with his tough talk Monday demanding that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein allow international weapons inspectors back into his country after a three-year hiatus. "He is doing a pretty good job right now of hiding what he is doing and it is our understanding his capabilities are more mobile than in the past," this official said.

The ongoing Iraqi sanctions debate in the United Nations is "something that predates September 11th obviously but perhaps a little different tenor to it" because of the focus on terrorism in the wake of the attacks.

But Bush's tough talk about Iraq angered many Arab diplomats, who said they could not support U.S. military action without specific, credible information linking the government of Saddam Hussein to the September 11th attacks. U.S. officials concede they have no such evidence.

U.S. officials took pains Tuesday to make the case there were no immediate plans for military action against Iraq, though some said it was clear Bush was trying to recreate a sense of urgency as the United Nations again debates the fate of sanctions imposed against Baghdad in the wake of the Persian Gulf War. And some officials acknowledged there are those within the administration who believe military action against Iraq is justified, and that at a minimum the president was making clear he had not ruled out a military option when it comes to Iraq.

"But we can't just run off by ourselves and do something like that," a senior State Department official said. "How we deal with Iraq and a lot of other places around the world for now is a riddle that remains to be answered." This official said the president's remarks, however, were "a reminder to all of us that this is bigger than Afghanistan, bigger than just al Qaeda. Afghanistan and al Qaeda are a branch on the tree but the president has committed himself to felling the whole tree."

Al Qaeda crackdown

Bush has said that there are al Qaeda cells in perhaps 50 or 60 countries, and officials listed Somalia, Sudan and Yemen as trouble spots. Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Salih met with Bush at the White House on Tuesday and U.S. officials praised Yemen's cooperation in the wake of the attacks. "But it is also fair to say this new spirit in the relationship is a relatively new one and that we do think there are additional steps when it comes to al Qaeda that Yemen could and should be taking," another U.S. official said.

This official said President Salih told Bush that Yemen was "committed to helping bring al Qaeda to justice." Bush responded that cooperation should be expanded in law enforcement and intelligence sharing, the U.S. official said. The official said other U.S. officials thanked President Salih for delaying the trial in Yemen of suspects in the bombing of the USS Cole after the FBI said it wanted time to explore additional leads in its investigations. Still, the U.S. officials said there was "considerable room" for more progress in cooperation on that front as well.

Discussions of future fronts are in very early stages, a handful of U.S. officials involved in the policy discussions say.

One immediate goal already spelled out by Bush is targeting al Qaeda cells outside of Afghanistan. Somalia, Sudan and Yemen are of particular concern. So too are the Philippines and Indonesia, where local terrorist cells have, in the administration's view, at least loose ties to al Qaeda. U.S. officials praise the response of the Philippine government; but are privately critical of Indonesia's efforts.

"This is already a second front on this war," says analyst Dana Dillon of the Heritage Foundation. "It's just now we are going to be paying a lot more attention to it because Afghanistan is winding down."

How to proceed

Bush and top advisers have talked of a worldwide campaign against terrorism but have yet to settle on any detailed strategy to deal with nations long suspected by the United States or sponsoring or harboring terrorists. Iraq, Iran, Syria and Lebanon are among those in question.

"I think there is a genuine split within the administration, within the Congress, within the country as to how to proceed in the next phase on terrorism," former Congressman Lee Hamilton, now an analyst at the Woodrow Wilson Center, said in an interview with CNN.

In talking tough about Iraq on Monday, the president said Saddam Hussein should allow international inspectors back in to determine if Iraq has resumed development of chemical, biological or nuclear weapons programs. Inspectors were thrown out of the country three years ago.

Iraq said it would not comply with Bush's demand, and several Arab diplomats raised objections to any talk of a U.S.-led military campaign against Iraq.

But some in the administration are in favor of a new front in the war: a new effort to put pressure on nations believed to be developing or seeking weapons of mass destruction. Iraq and North Korea lead this list, in the U.S. view, but officials also suspect Syria, Iran and Libya of exploring such programs.

Officials acknowledge winning international support for new inspections and sanctions regimes would be an uphill fight, and that in any event such an approach would take months and perhaps years.

"If after sanctions, if after a refusal to let inspectors in, you still don't have action, it might very well be at that point that the United States would have to consider a pre-emptive strike," Hamilton said. "That's something we haven't done in the past. Or at least we haven't done it very often and it would have to be carefully considered."

Iraq gets the most attention because of the history, but even here key lawmakers say the administration needs to proceed with caution and with an eye on keeping as strong an international coalition as possible.

"I don't think that any of our friends want to see a helicopter raid at midnight and rockets going in there without some sense of coordination and coalition building that I think is vital because then you have to ask the next question always: 'What happens next?'" said Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee.

Need for 'clear overall policy'

And in pursuing nations that have or desire programs for weapons of mass destruction, Hagel and others said the administration would need a clear overall policy but also a tailored approach to each specific nation it decided to pressure.

"North Korea is a different situation as well," Hagel said. "Different area, different dynamics, different leader, different possibilities. Syria is different from Iraq. Each of these nations must be dealt with based on their own specific situation."

Bush initially spoke of targeting nations that sponsor or harbor terrorists. If he decided to expand the focus of the campaign to include nations with weapons of mass destruction, many believe he would have to spend considerable time building U.S. public and international support for the effort.

"The president needs to articulate very clearly again what the targets are of our war on terrorism," Hamilton said. "It is terrorism with a global reach, particular terrorist organizations? Is it countries that harbor or develop weapons of mass destruction? Is it only countries that harbor terrorists? What really are the targets that we're aiming at in this war on terrorism. I think there has been a loosening if you will of the objectives the president originally stated and it's become less clear just what are our targets. .... Now if you want to take on another whole objective, which is to stop weapons of mass destruction from being developed in countries, you better spell out exactly what you are planning to do and how you plan to get there. The administration is a long way from doing that."


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