INTERNATIONAL

Iraq may dominate Bush address

New York JAN. 28. If on Monday all eyes and ears were on the report of the weapons inspectors to the United Nations Security Council, the attention today is on the United States President, George W. Bush, as he delivers the State of the Union Address in the House Chamber.

Analysts are making the point that Mr. Bush will be focussing on a select few domestic and foreign issues, but that what he says will be as important as what he does not. In the realm of foreign policy, it is only obvious that Iraq will head the list of priorities and it is entirely possible that the President will only talk about this issue on which America is so divided about on whether to go to war or explore further diplomatic and political options.

While senior members of the administration have reacted rather sharply to the assessment of the weapons inspectors, Mr. Bush will speak for himself for the first time tonight. The tough words against Iraq by Hans Blix, the head of the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC), was immediately pounced upon by senior administration officials as an endorsement of what Washington has been saying all along about the Iraqi President, Saddam Hussein, and his programmes of weapons of mass destruction. But few expect the President to announce a date for the start of military operations.

In fact, the expectation is that Mr. Bush will use the State of the Union Address to further explain to Americans his "case'' against Mr. Hussein. The latest opinion poll shows that the country is evenly divided on whether or not Mr. Bush has indeed made the "case'' against Iraq. The need to get rid of Mr. Hussein and his weapons of mass destruction apart, there is also a feeling that Mr. Bush will present first details on the Iraq-Al-Qaeda relationship and networking that some senior officials have been talking about in the last two days.

Mr. Bush, one view goes, may not be declaring war on Iraq tonight, but he will be making it amply clear that a war is around the corner and that time is not on the side of Mr. Hussein. There has been a raft of speculation on when the President will give the final go-ahead — Mid-February is the latest date doing the rounds in the media.

Mr. Bush takes the podium on Capitol Hill tonight with the full realisation that his approval ratings have dropped sharply from what it was in the aftermath of the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. In January 2002, nearly 85 per cent of the people approved of the job he was doing in the realm of domestic and foreign policies. Today, that number stands at around 60 per cent. The war with Iraq and the state of the economy are the two issues profoundly worrying the American people.

In fact, against the backdrop of the sharp criticism of Iraq by Mr. Blix at the Council on Monday, the stock market took a hit with the Dow Jones Industrial Average falling 141 points, closing below 8000 for the first time in three months; and gold prices rose to a six-year high.

The focus on Iraq — and perhaps to a small extent on North Korea — aside, Mr. Bush is expected to focus on the domestic priorities of his administration with specific action plans on the overhaul of medicare and prescription drugs.

Mr. Bush is also expected to talk about social security and the expanding Federal budget deficit.

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