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U.S. striving to shape allies from enmity

Chicago Tribune Washington Bureau

President Bush's stern warning to nations that sponsor terrorism has given way to a U.S. effort to gain cooperation and intelligence from the same countries.

Iran, Syria, Sudan and other countries that Washington has labeled terrorist sponsors are feeling not the weight of U.S. military might, but the extended hand of the Bush administration's coalition-building effort focused now on one priority: suspected terrorist Osama bin Laden and his organization.

All other concerns, including the support that bin Laden's allies get from some governments that use terrorism as a tool of statecraft, are falling by the wayside. Administration officials say they are being hard-headed and pragmatic in pursuing a tough adversary. But some, particularly Israel and its supporters in Washington, worry that the administration is making deals with devils.

Weapons proposal is cut back

Not only is there no talk about any major military strikes on these nations, the administration actually has sought presidential waiver authority to provide weapons and other military support to states deemed cooperative with the war on terrorism, even if they have been on U.S. lists of terrorist sponsors in the past.

Only last-minute resistance on Capitol Hill caused the administration to accept much more limited presidential authority.

On Tuesday, Bush reiterated his implied threat against states that continue to support and harbor terrorists.

"If you harbor a terrorist, you're just as guilty as the terrorist," Bush said in a Rose Garden appearance with Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.

No sympathy from Iraq

For the moment, however, only Afghanistan is facing the direct threat of military action.

The U.S. lists seven nations -- Iran, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Libya, Cuba and North Korea -- as sponsors of terrorism. Of those, only Iraq has failed to offer condolences and at least some support to the U.S. in the wake of the attacks on New York's World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Iraq, which some senior advisers to the president urge should be attacked, has not been linked definitively to the Sept. 11 terrorism. Such a link likely would lead to a U.S. attack on Iraq, but an attack now -- as the president does the delicate work of assembling a coalition that includes Muslim nations sympathetic to Iraq -- could undermine the main goal of getting bin Laden, U.S. officials fear.

The administration has several motivations for its policy shift.

Nations that have sponsored terrorism are the very ones that could be most helpful in providing information useful in stopping it.

U.S. intelligence wants the freedom to work with unsavory individuals who might provide information on terrorist activities, and the State Department argues that nations with ties to terrorist organizations might be particularly helpful in cracking bin Laden's network.

Richard Perle, a senior adviser to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, describes the policy as a "momentary, fleeting collaboration for immediate tactical advantage."

Iran, for example, has sealed off its border with Afghanistan, closing a possible escape route for bin Laden and his associates. Sudan has arrested some terror suspects believed linked to bin Laden's Al Qaeda organization, has granted access to U.S. investigators and said it would allow U.S. overflight of its territory in the event of strikes against terrorist strongholds.

A policy of attacking these states almost certainly would cause a major rift between the U.S. and the moderate Mideast nations whose support is deemed essential, particularly Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

A major attack on a Muslim nation could backfire, helping anti-U.S. terrorist organizations recruit new adherents and likely generating more terrorist attacks.

Behavioral changes?

Some U.S. officials hope that a combination of incentives and threats against the nations on its terrorism-sponsor lists will yield changes in the way those nations behave.

But the administration will have to block some events out of its memory if it is to pursue warmer relations with some of these countries.

Iran, for example, continues to finance Hezbollah terrorist operations in Lebanon that have been linked to the 1983 Marine barracks bombing that killed 241 Americans and the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia that killed 19 U.S. airmen. Iranians also took hostage 52 Americans from the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979.

Syria, meanwhile, allows Iran to supply Hezbollah through the Damascus airport, according to a Congressional Research Service report on terrorism, and plays willing host to several terrorist organizations, including the Palestinian group Hamas.

Shoshana Bryan of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs called the Bush administration policy "the clean-slate principle," in which countries that back Washington now can see past sins forgiven.

"The pressing need to eliminate terrorism's most visible and immediate threat, Osama bin Laden, should not be allowed to interfere with the larger goal of draining the swamps that breed terrorists worldwide," said Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., ranking Democrat on the House International Relations Committee.

While Lantos praised the easing of sanctions on Pakistan, which has been instrumental in helping the administration pressure Afghanistan, he said that easing up on Iran or Syria in exchange for their backing of a U.S.-led counterterrorism campaign "would be counterproductive."

An early draft of the administration's legislation to strengthen law enforcement's ability to combat terrorism would have allowed the president to override sanctions and export restrictions and sell arms to any foreign country, "if to do so is important to United States efforts" against terrorism.

When lawmakers raised concerns about the sweeping powers that that provision would have given the president, the language was changed to apply only to India and Pakistan.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., defended the administration's overtures to countries such as Iran.

"I strongly support the administration's effort to build this worldwide coalition," Daschle said. "We need to continue to give them latitude as they consider their options."

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