WASHINGTON — The U.S. military victory in Iraq has done little so far to reduce international terrorism, halt the spread of weapons of mass destruction or promote a broader Mideast peace, the three goals President Bush cited most frequently in justifying the war, say a growing number of critics.

Six weeks after U.S. soldiers helped Iraqis topple a statue of Saddam Hussein in central Baghdad's Paradise Square, symbolizing the regime's end, the Middle East and the world beyond seem as dangerous as ever and the administration seems more divided than ever.

The U.S.-led effort to rebuild Iraq is off to a troubled start; the sometimes-forgotten nation-building exercise in Afghanistan has made little headway; and al-Qaida, though weakened, remains dangerous, with its two top leaders still on the loose.

The administration is still groping for ways to stop North Korea's nuclear weapons program and to prevent Iran from forging ahead with its own.

Israel's tentative agreement to the U.S. "road map" to Middle East peace kept hopes of an eventual settlement alive but did nothing to remove any of the roadblocks.

Some senior officials concede that the war on Iraq also diverted resources from two problems that could prove to be even more pressing than Iraq was: rooting out the remnants of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terror network and confronting Iran.

A senior intelligence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the CIA reassigned more than half of its operatives who were tracking al-Qaida fugitives in Afghanistan and Pakistan to Iraq. As a result, he said, U.S. forces weren't able to pursue bin Laden and other al-Qaida leaders as aggressively.

The continuing threat of terrorism against the United States and the West was highlighted on May 20 when the Department of Homeland Security raised its terror alert level back to "orange." It had lowered the alert level to "yellow" on April 16 as the war in Iraq wound down.

The heightened alert followed a string of bombings in Saudi Arabia and Morocco that illustrated that the al-Qaida terrorist network still has a bite to go with its sporadic barks on the al Jazeera television network and elsewhere.

U.S. troops scouring Iraq so far have found no evidence to confirm the administration's pre-war allegations of links between al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein's regime, nor any sign of the banned nuclear, chemical or biological weapons or ballistic missiles it said Iraq possessed.

Bush exaggerated Iraq's prominence in the war on terrorism, said Magnus Ranstorp, the director of the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

"It was somewhat misleading (to say) that this was going to be a safer world afterward," he said.

Ranstorp, a leading authority, gives Bush high marks for his overall handling of the campaign against terrorism since the Sept. 11 attacks. And he said one prediction by critics — that countries opposed to a U.S. invasion of Iraq would halt anti-terrorism cooperation with Washington — hasn't been borne out.

Others are less kind.

Criticism of the anti-terror effort and the faltering Iraqi reconstruction effort is growing, particularly among Democrats as an election year approaches.

"The whole Iraq war and now postwar has had the effect of taking attention, leadership and resources away from the war on terror," said Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., a presidential candidate.

"They had to make a choice and they chose Iraq. And thus lots of bad things have happened including the regeneration of al-Qaida," said Graham, who has long been critical of Bush's counterterrorism policies.

So far, though, the public isn't blaming Bush for his handling of the continued struggle with terrorism.

In a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll, conducted May 19-21, just 27 percent of respondents blamed administration actions for the recent attacks. The percentage of Americans who said the United States and its allies are winning the war on terror declined from 65 percent to 54 percent, however.

Bush and his aides have consistently warned that the fight against terrorism would be a long one. And they never claimed that ousting Saddam would solve the problem.

But in making the case for war, the president repeatedly said that Iraq illustrated the dangerous nexus between nations developing nuclear, chemical and biological arms and terrorists seeking to obtain them.

Now, lawmakers and others are warning that the instability in Iraq in the war's aftermath present at least as great a danger, offering a vacuum for extremists and a recruiting tool for al-Qaida.

The reconstruction effort was roundly criticized at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on May 22, where Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, one of the principle proponents of the war against Iraq, testified.

"I am concerned that the administration's initial stabilization and reconstruction efforts have been inadequate," said committee chairman Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind. "The planning for peace was much less developed than the planning for war."

Sen. Jospeh Biden, D-Del., told Wolfowitz: "The longer it takes us to restore law and order, the more likely it is the Iraqis will turn to extremist solutions."

Wolfowitz defended the effort, saying it should not be judged "against a standard of unachievable perfection."

Middle East experts, however, say the failure of the United States to install a post-Saddam administration, better Iraqis' lives and broker peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians are feeding Arab suspicions that war was really about Arab oil and Israeli security.

"The chaos is playing into the argument that we are there to subjugate the people, to get a foothold in the region," said Daniel Benjamin, a White House counterterrorism official under President Clinton, now with the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Top Bush officials also argue that the successful war in Iraq will dissuade other nations from building illicit weapons of mass destruction (WMD) or at least demonstrate the costs of doing so.

So far, however, there's little evidence of that, and no clear strategy for deterring North Korea, Iran and other nuclear wannabes.

Iran's nuclear weapons program is, if anything, accelerating, and Tehran may be able to build its own nuclear weapons in as little as two years, according to U.S. officials and foreign diplomats. North Korea is threatening to reprocess plutonium that could give it additional nuclear weapons within months.

In fact, the White House will release a report in the next few weeks laying out how Iran, North Korea and other nations are violating their obligations not to develop WMD, said a senior State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity.


Contributing: James Kuhnhenn