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Bush II air thick with invasion whispers

Washington, Jan. 22: Forty eight hours after George W. Bush began his second term as President, the mood in Washington is rapidly slipping into a replay of the months that preceded the American invasion of Iraq.

Even as vice-president Dick Cheney implied on the very day that he was sworn in for a second term that Israel might attack Iran soon as a proxy for the White House, the Israelis did nothing to dispel that impression.

Not only did they not contradict Cheney, unnamed Israeli officials briefed reporters in Tel Aviv urging European governments to take the vice-president's warning seriously and toughen their negotiations with Tehran on defusing Iran's stand-off on the issues of its nuclear programme.

Investigative reporter Seymour Hersh wrote in The New Yorker magazine last week that US commandos have been inside Iran for several months now, picking suspected nuclear facilities for airstrikes.

The Pentagon did not deny Hersh's case that Iran could be attacked, but only said his report was 'riddled with errors'.

Bush administration officials here quickly moved yesterday to dispel any notion that the President's declaration in his inaugural speech on Thursday to end tyranny across the globe and usher in liberty meant there would be changes in US policies towards allies like Pakistan or Saudi Arabia, which are not democracies.

Officials interpreted the President's speech to reporters who persisted on clarifications of what Bush meant by the main theme in his speech of spreading freedom worldwide, but insisted on not being quoted lest they were second-guessing him.

'It is not a discontinuity, it is not a right turn. It is a bit of an acceleration, a raising of the priority, making explicit in a very public way to give impetus to... a message we have been sending' in the first term.

Bush said in his address from Capitol Hill immediately after being sworn in that 'we will persistently clarify the choice before every ruler and every nation: the moral choice between oppression, which is always wrong, and freedom, which is eternally right'.

He also asserted that 'we will encourage reform in other governments by making clear that success in our relations will require the decent treatment of their own people'.

Throughout yesterday, the airwaves were dominated by what this would mean for dictatorships in Pakistan or Central Asia, which are crucial for America in its war against Osama bin Laden.

At the daily briefing at the state department, spokesman Richard Boucher was more forthcoming in the face of persistent questions from reporters on the subject.

'I think you will see him (Bush) carry out a new level of, shall we say, support for democratic forces in various countries. That doesn't mean we abandon our friends.

'But many of our friends realise it is time for them to change anyway, and they are, indeed, looking at making change within their own societies, and as well as we hear more civic leaders and other voices in those societies calling for reform and change. We intend to stand on the side of change and try to help people move it along'.

Boucher insisted that what Bush had outlined in his speech was a policy that the administration has already been carrying out.

'One shouldn't overlook things like the recent announcement of withholding $10 million of aid from Uzbekistan because of human rights problems there. And it is a policy that we intend to carry forward in a variety of ways'.

He dismissed talk of coercion by Washington in favour of change in other countries. 'I've got to say, you guys reduce this to pressure and cutoffs and that sort of thing, and there's at least as great an element of support ' support for elections in Saudi Arabia, support for judicial reform throughout the region, support for civil society groups, support for journalist training so that journalists can carry out their profession better'.

He promised more details of what Bush said in the coming days. 'I think the President and other members of the administration will, over the next few weeks, start talking in more detail about how those principles will be implemented.

'I am not prepared to do that in terms of every single relationship we have around the world today, but I think I can point out that the President has done a lot in this area. And (incoming) secretary (of state Condoleezza) Rice will, I am sure devote a lot of attention to this as well'.

Hostages freed: Insurgents in Iraq released eight Chinese labourers they had taken hostage and threatened to kill.

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