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Many question whether Iraq is greatest threat to U.S.

WASHINGTON—The startling revelation that North Korea has an active nuclear weapons program may complicate life for the White House but is unlikely to alter its plans to go after Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

In fact, several security experts said, President Bush may find greater public support for U.S. military action to crush threats to American and global security.

"This strengthens the view that we live in a terribly threatening world," said Jessica T. Mathews, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a nonpartisan policy research organization.

Bush administration officials are unlikely to let North Korea's revelation of a secret program to develop nuclear weapons derail the U.S. campaign to remove Saddam, several experts said. The White House has said its goal is regime change in Baghdad.

"They are going to go full-speed ahead on Iraq," said Judith Kipper, a Middle East expert at the conservative Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Recent terrorist attacks in Bali, the Philippines and Yemen, however, are raising questions among legislators and the American public over whether Iraq is the greatest threat to U.S. security and should remain the focus of the U.S. campaign against terrorism around the world.

"One is left scratching one's head wondering why Iraq is at the top of our `to-do' list and not North Korea," said James M. Lindsay, a former national security official in the Clinton administration and now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a centrist public policy research organization.

Earlier this month, North Korean officials confessed to U.S. diplomats that Pyongyang has worked on developing nuclear weapons in spite of a formal 1994 pledge not to do so. North Korea has ballistic missiles capable of carrying a small payload to Hawaii and parts of Alaska.

President Bush on Thursday called the announcement "troubling, sobering news," spokesman Scott McClellan said, but will address the issue through diplomatic channels.

A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that U.S. government experts are not sure what motivated North Korea. One possible reason was "to complicate matters with Iraq," a buyer of North Korean missile technology, he said.

Other possibilities include trying to pressure the United States into providing economic aid, or they may have decided that they had no other choice but to admit their continued pursuit of nuclear weapons when presented with "evidence that is irrefutable," he said.

Some foreign policy experts said the cautious White House approach might be best.

"The behavior of the North Korean regime until now suggests it is likely to be not as aggressive as Iraq," said Jeane Kirkpatrick, a former U.S. representative to the United Nations under former President Reagan.

One former senior U.S. diplomat said worries about a nuclear-armed North Korea, combined with fears about spreading terrorism, may bolster support for the Bush administration's strategy of striking militarily at potential sources of terrorism.

"I think there will be sufficient concern around the world about generalized terrorism to give impetus to military action and even pre-emptive action," said Peter Tarnoff, a former under secretary of state who was involved in policy toward North Korea during the Clinton administration.

Instability on the Korean Peninsula, however, could exacerbate rifts within the Bush administration over whether it should continue plans to topple Saddam as new threats emerge elsewhere and as U.S. military assets remain tied up in Afghanistan.

Within the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon, some officers are upset that Iraq has monopolized attention even as al-Qaida-linked terror groups threaten global security.

"They don't want to do this (Iraq campaign) at the expense of the war on terrorism and they don't want to take their eye off China, and they don't want to take their eye off Korea," a senior military official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Speaking at a recent conference in Leesburg, Va., Secretary of the Air Force James Roche warned that the U.S. military remains heavily committed in Afghanistan and other parts of the world, but he said if the president makes a decision to go to war, "It's our duty to salute and say aye-aye."

Roche said that he is concerned that the Pentagon may face an emergency in the Pacific region as it remains involved in Afghanistan, enforces the no-fly zone in northern and southern Iraq (Operations Northern and Southern Watch) and commits troops to march on Baghdad.

"We worry about contingencies popping up in the Pacific," Roche said, "and we already are tied down in Operations Northern Watch and Southern Watch . . .

But my sense is if we do not do something somewhere sometime, the war on terrorism will get much, much worse."

One of the most vocal critics of Bush's Iraq plans, Florida Democratic Sen. Bob Graham, who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, reiterated his concerns that Iraq should not be the most urgent priority as it seeks to crush global terrorism.

Recent terrorist shootings and bombings in Yemen, Kuwait and Bali, Graham said, "accelerate the importance of us taking on immediate terrorist threats and reducing the capability (of terrorists) to strike the United States before we do anything with Iraq."


(Johnson reports for the Miami Herald. Knight Ridder correspondents Joyce Davis, Jonathan S. Landay and Frank Davies contributed to this report.)


(c) 2002, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.