Mon, Jan 03, 2005 - Page 7 News List

Bush to continue to focus on `axis of evil'

SECOND TERM While the tsunami disaster is an immediate concern, Iraq will likely remain the top priority, with North Korea and Iran not far behind, US analysts say

AP , WASHINGTON

The three countries US President George W. Bush called an "axis of evil" in his first term are at the top of his foreign policy to-do list in the second, along with a revitalized Middle East peace process and continued efforts to repair European alliances frayed by the US-led invasion of Iraq.

War and reconstruction in Iraq are likely to continue to command more attention than any other international issues, at least for the first couple of years of Bush's new four-year term.

"The first priority has got to be getting Iraq right," said Max Boot, a conservative expert on national security at the Council on Foreign Relations.

But in the short run, the Bush administration also must juggle a complicated response to the devastation from tsunami across South Asia amid some complaints that the rich US is not doing enough.

The massive relief effort -- for which the US increased its financial aid commitment Friday to US$350 million -- is drawing attention away from preparations for elections scheduled for Jan. 30 in Iraq, but the distraction will probably be brief.

Bush pledged to give it plenty of attention, saying in his weekly radio address on Saturday that "we join the world in feeling enormous sadness over a great human tragedy."

On Iraq, the administration will get a real and perceived boost in credibility if elections scheduled there for the end of this month come off well, Boot and others said. Another round of elections is planned for later this year.

The alternative -- protracted turmoil and violence that the US cannot control -- would complicate US foreign policy far beyond Iraq.

"The odds are in our favor, but defeat is not out of the question," Boot said. "I think it's 60-40 in our direction."

The announcement on Thursday that Iraq's largest Sunni Muslim political party will not participate in the election won't help. The insurgency is believed to draw most of its support from Sunnis, who provided much of Saddam Hussein's former Baath Party membership.

Delaware Senator Joe Biden, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he found the security situation in Iraq worse during a trip in December than on three previous visits since the invasion.

"We basically have no trouble achieving any military objective; we have considerable trouble securing it," Biden said.

American patience with the war will soon wear thin, and doing the reconstruction job correctly could mean US troops stay in Iraq far longer than the public expects, he said. That leaves two options for Bush as he begins his second term, Biden said.

"We muddle through for the next year, declare victory after the second election and leave, and then there would be chaos," Biden said. Or, "level with the American people and tell them we're going to be muddling through for the next four years, or longer."

Bush seemed to acknowledge that Iraq remains Job No. 1 during a year-end news conference.

"We have a vital interest in the success of a free Iraq. You see, free societies do not export terror," Bush said.

Iran and North Korea, the other two countries in Bush's famous axis, loom nearly as large as Iraq. The US suspects both countries are on their way to possessing nuclear weapons, or already have them. Both have repressive or authoritarian governments that could interfere with their neighbors or worse.

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