Only moments after hailing the apparent U.S. victory in Baghdad on Wednesday, Secretary of State Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld turned the heat up on Syria.
He accused Damascus of giving haven to some members of Saddam Hussein's regime and assisting others to additional safe locations. Citing "scraps of intelligence" at a Pentagon news conference, Rumsfeld also renewed his accusation that Syria provided Iraq with night-vision goggles and other military technology.
"They would be well advised not to provide military equipment to Iraq," he said. "I find it notably unhelpful."
It was only the latest example in recent days of increasingly tough talk from U.S. officials on the two countries. Secretary of State Colin Powell, in comments to a pro-Israel group in late March, issued tough challenges to both.
"It is now time for the entire international community to step up and insist that Iran end its support for terrorists, including groups violently opposed to Israel and to the Middle East peace process," he said. "Tehran must stop pursuing weapons of mass destruction and the means to deliver them."
"Syria also now faces a critical choice," Powell continued. "Syria can continue direct support for terrorist groups and the dying regime of Saddam Hussein, or it can embark on a different and more hopeful course. Either way, Syria bears the responsibility for its choices, and for the consequences."
Asked days later about what "consequences" meant, Powell told European reporters that President Bush thinks there is a range of methods for dealing with terrorism.
"Sometimes political actions are appropriate, economic actions, use of our intelligence assets. Sometimes military force is appropriate. But we are not looking for wars to get into," he said.
Asked Wednesday if any other countries beyond Iraq were potential targets for use of U.S. military force, Rumsfeld said: "No one is throwing down the gauntlet…I have nothing to announce. We're still dealing with Iraq."
The Bush administration has never made its dislike for Iran and Syria a secret.
For years, both Syria and Iran have been listed among the seven countries the United States deems state sponsors of terrorism, mainly for their alleged support for Hezbollah — a terrorist group that some in Washington feel should be a higher priority than Al Qaeda.
Mr. Bush last year named Iran a member of the "axis of evil".
But the recent comments by Powell and Rumsfeld, especially after the U.S. invasion of Iraq solidified the Bush administration strategy of preemptive warfare, are seen by some as ominous signs of possible imminent action.
Some commentators are calling for more direct threats.
Michael Leeden, an analyst at the influential American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, wrote this week that "there is no more time for diplomatic 'solutions.' The United States will have to deal with the terror masters, here and now. "
There are also plenty of opposition groups scattered around the world that might be eager to offer assistance to any expanded war.
"Everybody is worried about the postwar period," said Turki al-Hamad, a Saudi intellectual. "The Iraq takeover has become a strong political card the Americans can use to threaten any other regime in the region with."
"Iraq will be a launch pad for a new Middle East order," al-Hamad added. "The message will be: Either behave or die."
Mr. Bush has said one of the goals of the war against Iraq was to expand democracy in the region. But the administration feels the sheer sight of the eventual U.S. victory in Iraq could influence other regimes, and make military force unnecessary. It is also aware of the potential public backlash to another war against a Muslim country.
But the administration has also made clear — in Afghanistan, Iraq, and to a lesser degree with deployments in Colombia and the Philippines — that it is willing to use military power on various scales to counter perceived threats to national security.
It's also true that the war against Iraq began with discussion about "consequences," and ended with the apparent overthrow of a regime.
The administration has made no explicit threat of expanded war, but also has not explicitly denied the possibility, however remote, of a new target. Last week, when asked what would happen next, Rumsfeld replied: "Oh, that's — that's for others to decide."