The Bush administration's focus on eliminating Iraq's chemical, nuclear and biological weapons program has raised concerns in Washington about how a potential military operation would affect the war on terrorism. Former Vice President Al Gore triggered intense debate on the issue last month, when he suggested a military strike on Iraq could seriously damage the ongoing struggle against Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terrorist network.
Mr. Gore and some other leading Democrats are questioning the wisdom of engaging in a war on Iraq at a time when the United States is already fighting al-Qaida, the group accused of carrying out last year's September 11 terrorist attacks.
Senior Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts recently outlined his objections in a speech in Washington.
"Just one year into the campaign against al-Qaida, the administration is shifting focus, resources, and energy to Iraq," he said. "The change in priority is coming before we have fully eliminated the threat from al-Qaida, before we know whether Osama bin Laden is dead or alive, and before we can be assured that the fragile post-Taleban government in Afghanistan will consolidate its authority."
Senator Kennedy has said he wants the administration to pursue other options before going to war.
However, President Bush argues that the war on Iraq and the war on terrorism are intimately connected.
"The danger is that al-Qaida becomes an extension of Saddam's madness and his hatred and his capacity to extend weapons of mass destruction around the world," he said. "Both of them need to be dealt with. You can't distinguish between al-Qaida and Saddam when you talk about the war on terror."
Former Clinton administration national security advisor Sandy Berger believes Saddam Hussein would be reluctant to use chemical or biological weapons because of the threat of a massive U.S. response. Mr. Berger testified last week before a senate committee.
"It would be uncharacteristic for a man who has placed the highest premium on self-preservation. There would be a significant chance of detection, followed quite simply by his annihilation," he said.
Former Defense Secretary James Schlesinger, who served in the Nixon and Ford administrations, disagrees with Mr. Berger. He told the Senate hearing that there is a real possibility of Iraq giving terrorists weapons of mass destruction.
"As time passes, it is quite possible that a revived al Qaida will be in a better position to exploit such weapons, and for that reason one would like to diminish the time that might be available to them or to Saddam in passing on such weapons," he said.
The former defense secretary said al-Qaida remains a threat, but a quick success in Iraq would greatly benefit the war on terrorism. He added, however, that if a war against Iraq bogs down, al-Qaida could win new converts in countries such as Pakistan.
"If we have a quick success in Iraq, we will be surprised at the number of countries who are eager to help us," he said. "If it is a botch, the reverse will be true, and we will not be in a position to arrest a decay, let us say, in Pakistan. A triumph of American and other arms will, as in November of last year, alter public opinion in Pakistan. A failure or semi-failure of American arms will lead to a revival of support for Osama bin Laden in Pakistan."
Mr. Schlesinger said a war against Iraq carries the possibilities of great benefits to the war on terrorism and sizable risks.