President Bush's sternly worded warning to Iran and Syria that the United States' new strategy in Iraq could include action against them sent shock waves across Capitol Hill today, prompting pointed questions for top administration policymakers.
Nearly every detail of the president's address on a "New Way Forward" in Iraq had been widely previewed ahead of the Wednesday prime-time address. But many on Capitol Hill and elsewhere were caught off guard by the aggressiveness of the president's language on securing Iraq's borders and resisting outside influence.
"This begins with addressing Iran and Syria. These two regimes are allowing terrorists and insurgents to use their territory to move in and out of Iraq. Iran is providing material support for attacks on American troops," Bush said. "We will disrupt the attacks on our forces. We'll interrupt the flow of support from Iran and Syria. And we will seek out and destroy the networks providing advanced weaponry and training to our enemies in Iraq."
Bush said he had ordered a second carrier strike group to the Persian Gulf to bolster security and protect oil and other American interests in the region, a move Iranians consider provocative.
"Well I heard the sabers rattling on that," retired Maj. Gen. William Nash, an ABC News consultant, said in an interview after the president's address. "This may be what we're talking about six months from now far more than we're talking about the security sit (sic) in Baghdad. This portends a confrontation that could significantly broaden military operations in the region."
The diplomatic shot across the bow of two of Iraq's neighbors was one of the key topics in the opening round of a series of Capitol Hill hearings to scrutinize the Bush administration's conduct of the war. Several Democrats expressed alarm at the president's words.
"We hoped and prayed we would hear of a plan that would have two features: to begin to bring American forces home and a reasonable prospect of leaving behind a stable Iraq," Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. "Instead we heard a plan to escalate the war, not only in Iraq but possibly into Iran and Syria as well. "
Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., seemed incredulous.
"Really there are four or five -- there are several wars," Kerry said. "There's a war of Sunni on Shi'a, there's a war of Sunni and Shi'a on American occupiers, there's a war of Syria, Iran."
Rice repeated the Bush administration's intent not to join in direct talks on Iraq with Iran and Syria because the United States would be seen as a "supplicant."
"I think there's a burden on Iran and Syria to show that there are reasons to come to the table that are in the best interest of the region," Rice told members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in a morning hearing.
Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, appeared to step back from the president's harsh rhetoric, saying that no military recommendation has suggested operations inside Iran.
"We can take care of the security for our troops by doing the business we need to do inside of Iraq," Pace told reporters in a briefing with Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates. "But with regard to those who are physically present trying to do harm to our troops, regardless of nationality, we will go after them and defend ourselves."