"States like these, and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil arming to threaten the peace of the world," said Mr. Bush in his Tuesday night address to Congress.
All three countries rejected the president's accusations on Wednesday. Iran said Mr. Bush's remarks suggested a desire for hegemony. Iraq suggested they presaged a U.S. attack on Baghdad and North Korea saw them as evidence of a "policy of aggression."
The president didn't openly threaten military action and White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Wednesday that Mr. Bush "is not sending a signal that military action is imminent." But during the Second World War the term "axis" was used to describe America's enemies: Germany, Japan and Italy. Mr. Bush said Iran, Iraq and North Korea pose a grave and growing danger, and that America would do what is necessary to protect itself.
"We will be deliberate, yet time is not on our side," he said. "I will not wait on events, while dangers gather. I will not stand by, as peril draws closer and closer."
Although air strikes set back Saddam Hussein's efforts to build weapons of mass destruction, the CIA believes all three countries have been trying to develop nuclear weapons and already have chemical and probably biological weapons. They don't yet have missiles capable of reaching the U.S., but September 11 proved there are other ways. It could have been much worse if chemical, biological or nuclear materials had been on board those hijacked jets. And it doesn't have to be an airliner it could be a container ship or even a suitcase.
"The world has to understand the potential for not thousands of people to be killed, but tens of thousands of people to be killed," said Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
U.S. officials say there is no new intelligence that suggests Iran, Iraq and North Korea are greater threats today than they were before September 11. What's changed is that the president has now said he intends to do something about it, although officials say they do not yet have a plan of action.
In one indication that the president means business, the U.S. moved quickly Wednesday to restore full funding for the opposition Iraqi National Council, which aims to overthrow Saddam Hussein.
Most of the funding had been suspended because of disputes between the INC and the State Department over the accounts for money which the organization has previouly received.
"We have renewed the funding at previous levels," said a State Department official, who asked not to be named. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage approved the continued funding, another official added.
Some U.S. officials were gleeful about Mr. Bush's tough talk but others were caught off guard, concerned it could undermine painstaking diplomatic efforts with Iran and North Korea.
Reflecting the unsettled state of U.S. policy, Mr. Bush's speech identified a threat without explaining it fully or defining how the United States might address it.
Moreover, he seemed to paint all three countries with the same broad brush. "You have to evaluate these things on a case by case basis," said Lee Feinstein, formerly a policy planner at the State Department under President Clinton.
One major concern among experts is the wisdom of possibly using military force, instead of diplomacy, against heavily militarized North Korea when ally South Korea and 36,000 American troops are within shooting range.
Feinstein, now with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said he agreed with the president that the United States has a right to act preemptively if faced with a nuclear or other threat.
But he expressed concern the president made no mention of working with NATO and other allies to combat proliferation.
Although Iran and North Korea remain on the U.S. list of terror-sponsoring states, Washington in recent years has sought common ground more often than confrontation as U.S. relations with both states inched toward improvement.
Negotiations with Pyongyang stalled after Mr. Bush took office in January 2001 and undertook a policy review. He later agreed to resume the talks but so far Pyongyang has resisted.
Still, North Korea's nuclear program remains frozen under a 1994 agreement with the United States and it has held to its voluntary moratorium on missile testing.
Iran-U.S. enmity dates to the 1979 Islamic revolution when 52 Americans in the U.S. Embassy were held hostage by student revolutionaries for 444 days.
In recent years, the two sides have edged closer, including cooperation initially on Afghanistan. But U.S. officials have been angered by what they view as Tehran's increasing efforts to interfere in post-Taliban Afghanistan and by Iran's alleged involvement in the recent shipment of a huge cache of weapons to Palestinians fighting Israel.
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