Bush made the comments on 29 January in his State of the Union address to Congress. In it, he stressed the US’ commitment to clamping down on regimes which seek weapons of mass destruction to threaten the US and its allies. North Korea and Iran were both culprits, said Bush, but he singled out Iraq for particular condemnation, saying Baghdad continues to flaunt its hostility toward the US and support terror. ‘The Iraqi regime has plotted to develop anthrax, and nerve gas, and nuclear weapons for over a decade,’ he said. ‘This is a regime that has something to hide from the civilised world.’

‘Little Bush’s accusation against Iraq is baseless,’ Salim al-Qubaisi, head of Iraq’s Parliamentary Foreign and Arab Relations Committee said on 30 January. ‘Iraq has said clearly that it no longer possesses any weapons of mass destruction and no longer has the ability to develop them.’

Iran and North Korea have also reacted angrily to the charges levelled against them. Iranian President Khatami dismissed Bush’s speech as ‘bellicose and insulting’, while Foreign Affairs Minister Kamal Kharazi accused Bush of interfering in Iran’s internal affairs. ‘We condemn the American accusations and think the world no longer accepts US hegemony,’ he said on 30 January. Pyongyang accused Washington of adopting a hostile and aggressive stance towards North Korea. The official news agency KCNA said the remarks were intended to justify the stationing of US troops in South Korea.

Baghdad also saw ulterior motives to the speech. Al-Qubaisi said Bush’s rhetoric was intended to prepare world public opinion for a US military strike against Iraq, a move some members of the president’s administration have long advocated. The US is stepping up pressure on Baghdad to allow UN weapons inspectors back into Iraq, and during his address, Bush repeatedly warned that Washington would not allow ‘the world’s most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world’s most dangerous weapons’. Al-Qubaisi countered that Iraq was well prepared to repel any US aggression.

As belligerent noises continue to emanate from some quarters of Capitol Hill, Baghdad is stepping up attempts to garner international opposition to an escalation in the war on terrorism. A trip to Beijing on 27-30 January by Iraqi Foreign Minister Tareq Aziz prompted China to announce that it ‘did not support the expansion of anti-terror action’. However, Vice-president Qian Qichen added that China hoped Iraq would co-operate with the UN ‘to avoid new and complicated situations which might emerge’.

Baghdad has indeed been increasing efforts to improve relations with the UN in what is seen as a renewed attempt to have sanctions on Iraq lifted. On 30 January, Arab League chief Amr Moussa delivered a message from Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, and Baghdad has agreed to a visit to Iraq by UN human rights investigator Andreas Mavrommatis. The visit, scheduled for mid-February, will be the first by a special rapporteur for a decade.