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Iran, Iraq React Strongly to Bush Speech - 2002-01-30

President George Bush's State of the Union address has evoked a strong reaction from officials and commentators in the Middle East.

President Bush's message was blunt, especially those parts of it that dealt with terrorism. He charged that Iran, Iraq and North Korea and those allied with them constitute what he described as "an axis of evil" that is "arming to threaten the peace of the world."

Iran was equally blunt in its response. Iran's foreign minister, Kamal Kharrazi, said Mr. Bush had better back up his assertions with evidence instead of repeating old unfounded claims.

Abdel Wahid Ashroor is the Middle East News agency's expert on Iran. He says, up until Mr. Bush's speech, many Iranians believed relations between the United States and Iran were improving.

Mr. Ashroor says the latest accusations from the American president surprised everyone. He says everyone was expecting American-Iranian relations to get closer especially after the war against Afghanistan because Iran had its own stance against the Taleban. Mr. Ashroor says "obviously there's a bigger problem than everyone believed."

Tehran and Washington severed diplomatic ties more than 20 years ago after radical Iranian students stormed the U.S. embassy in 1979 and took 52 Americans hostage for 444 days.

Mr. Ashroor speculates that U.S. anger toward Iran is based on Iran's support of the radical Lebanese group Hezbollah, which has claimed responsibility for attacks against Israel.

In his speech Mr. Bush warned that the U.S. campaign against terror had only begun, and he vowed the United States would hunt terrorists wherever they are hiding.

Mohamed Said Kadry is a former general in the Egyptian army who now works as a military expert for the al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. He says the president's speech seemed to warn of future U.S. military action.

"He is just giving some names of countries and organizations and he gave it in a very tough context. This means that he is defining the enemies of the United States and, to me, it means he has some plans to address those enemies," he said.

Walid Kazziha is a political science professor at American Univesity in Cairo. He says people throughout the Middle East view groups like Hezbollah, Hamas and Jihad as resisting Israeli occupation. Consequently, he says, Mr. Bush's speech likely didn't make a great deal of sense to the average Arab. "If you want to turn the tables on Hezbollah you've got to have the audience in the region capable of understanding why you want to do this. Hezbollah is associated, in the minds of most people in this region, as a liberation movement," he said.

The head of Iraq's parliamentary commission on Arab and International Relations, Salem al Qubaissi, called the president's speech a "tirade" and said it was "part of a string of accusations launched by the U.S. administration to prepare public opinion to accept a new attack on Iraq."

Other Arab countries have said they oppose any U.S. military action against Iraq as part of an expansion of its war on terrorism.

The U.S. has given no indication of any plans to attack Iraq. Although President Bush has warned President Saddam Hussein of undisclosed consequences if he fails to allow U.N. weapons inspectors to reenter the country to make sure Iraq has no weapons of mass destruction. U.N. inspectors left Iraq in 1999 and have since not been allowed to return.