WASHINGTON -- The United States will watch closely to see what Iraq, Iran and North Korea do next, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld warned Wednesday, a day after President Bush singled them out as part of a dangerous ''Axis of evil.''
Bush is weighing whether to escalate actions against Iraq beyond the current sanctions and fighter jet patrols. He also wants to stop Iran from funneling arms to terrorists, and seeks to prevent North Korea from developing and selling missiles.
But no military action is imminent, aides said. Senior White House officials said the administration is still trying to figure out how to deal with Iraq. The State Department also made clear its willingness to hold talks with Iran and North Korea, and to continue to press for weapons inspectors in Iraq.
Nevertheless, Bush's words served to warn the three countries that their development of weapons of mass destruction and support for terrorists, endangering tens of thousands of people, won't be tolerated, Rumsfeld said.
''If I were in Iran or North Korea or Iraq and I heard the president of the United States say what he said about weapons of mass destruction ... I don't think there'd be a lot of ambiguity,'' Rumsfeld said. ''Now, what they will do about that is something we'll find out.''
White House aides said, on condition of anonymity, that Bush in his State of the Union speech also intended to heighten Americans' awareness of the terrorist threats they face, as he seeks to justify new military spending, and to buy time from the public to decide where and how to strike next.
''The president is not sending a signal that military action is imminent, but it was an expression of how seriously the president takes the issues of protecting our country,'' said spokesman Ari Fleischer.
There was no immediate reaction from Iraq or North Korea. Iran's foreign minister, Kamal Kharrazi, said his country rejected the U.S. accusations.
Right now, the U.S. military flies regular fighter patrols over northern and southern Iraq to enforce ''no fly'' zones. These patrols also keep a close eye on the movements of Iraq's military and search for signs of weapons of mass destruction.
Within the Bush administration, there has been a debate about how to act against Iraq, either with military strikes or diplomatic moves. The administration has taken few actions to pave the way for military strikes: It has not, for example, given money to Iraqi opposition groups to help them operate inside the country.
On Iran, the U.S. Navy 5th Fleet closely monitors Iranian naval activities and the movement of ships along its coastline carrying oil from Iraq. A Navy ship recently stopped a vessel whose captain was an Iranian and boarded it to inspect its cargo, but found nothing amiss.
The United States and allies also recently have sent more ships into the northern Indian Ocean, the Arabian Sea and the Persian Gulf area near Iran, but mainly to watch for al-Qaida movements from Afghanistan toward Somalia.
In North Korea, there have recently been no reported signs of increased military threats or trouble in the demilitarized zone that separates it from South Korea. The U.S. Air Force keeps an eye on North Korea from U-2 flights.
North Korea is currently not testing long-range missiles, and had taken steps to reduce contacts with terrorists, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Wednesday. But it needs to do more, he said.
Iraq and North Korea have repeatedly been singled out by the administration as wrongdoers. Early in the war on terrorism, American officials spoke of better cooperation with Iran. But last week, Bush strongly criticized Iran after Israel discovered an arms shipment from Iran bound for Palestinian militants.
Iran maintains one of the world's most active programs to acquire weapons of mass destruction and long-range missiles to deliver them, according to the CIA, which says Iran and North Korea both will probably have missiles capable of reaching the United States by 2015. Iraq has not allowed United Nations inspections of its weapon sites since 1998.
However, economic and diplomatic pressures, including more warnings, would be likely for months before any military action against any of the three, administration officials said.
Bush's linking of the three countries as an ''Axis of evil'' does not reflect a fear that North Korea, Iran and Iraq will somehow enter into an alliance against the United States, the White House spokesman said.
''It was more rhetorical than historical,'' Fleischer said of Bush's words.
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