WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Pentagon has informed Congress it is planning for the possible use of nuclear weapons against countries that threaten the United States _ a policy shift some arms control experts say could make America more likely to use such weapons.
But a top Defense Department official said that over the next decade, it should be ``far less likely'' that the United States or other countries will rely on nuclear weapons.
It has been U.S. policy not to consider using nuclear weapons except as retaliation for a nuclear strike or in exceptional cases during wartime.
The classified nuclear posture review sent to Congress in January, however, says the Pentagon is developing contingency plans for using nuclear weapons against countries such as Iraq or North Korea that are developing weapons of mass destruction.
The Los Angeles Times reported Saturday that the Pentagon is preparing contingency plans for possibly using nuclear weapons against seven nations: China, Russia, Iraq, North Korea, Iran, Libya and Syria.
``We will not discuss classified details of military planning or contingencies, nor will we comment on selective and misleading leaks,'' Army Lt. Col. Catherine Abbott said Saturday in the Defense Department's specific response to details in the article.
But she noted that the nuclear posture review is required by law and said ``it does not provide operational guidance on nuclear targeting or planning.''
Pentagon officials have said publicly they are also exploring ways to modify existing nuclear warheads to destroy underground bunkers and other ``hardened'' targets that countries such as Iraq might use to hide chemical, biological or nuclear arms.
Past U.S. policy has relied mainly on the threat of conventional military force to deter the production and spread of weapons of mass destruction.
``By targeting these seven countries, some of which are new targets, the U.S. is increasing, not decreasing, the possibility of using nuclear weapons in its policy,'' said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association.
A senior U.S. official said Saturday that the posture review is a statement of strategy, and neither represents a change in policy on using nuclear weapons nor makes their use more likely. It also reflects that ``there are threats out there'' and there long have been contingencies for dealing with those threats, the official said.
The classified report is not a plan for action, said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity. The posture review also includes President Bush's plans to slash the United States' ready nuclear stockpiles by about two-thirds over the next decade.
The top Pentagon arms control official declined to discuss the contents or details of the report. But Douglas J. Feith, the undersecretary of defense, told The Associated Press that ``the purpose and the effect of the administration's nuclear policy as embodied in the nuclear policy review to make the use of nuclear weapons less likely.''
Feith said the administration intended to accomplish this by developing a missile defense, conventional weapons that can be used over longer ranges and with more precision, and better intelligence.
``If we have an effective military, our allies are not going to feel they are under any compulsion to develop their own nuclear weapons,'' he said, apart from those such as Britain and France that already are nuclear powers.
The Times reported that the review said the weapons could be used in three types of situations: against targets able to withstand non-nuclear attack; in retaliation for attack with nuclear, biological or chemical weapons; or ``in the event of surprising military developments.''
All the countries mentioned except China and Russia are on the U.S. list of nations which support terrorism. In his State of the Union speech to Congress in January, Bush said Iran, Iraq and North Korea formed an ``axis of evil'' that threatens to put weapons of mass destruction into the hands of terrorists.
The United States years ago said it no longer was targeting its missiles at Russia and China. Critics have questioned whether that was a meaningful move because the missiles can be reprogrammed quickly to redirect them.
The Pentagon, in a report to Congress in the fall, said it was considering the possibility of developing a low-yield nuclear device that would be able to destroy deeply buried stockpiles of chemical or biological weapons. Such a move would require Congress to lift a ban on designing new nuclear warheads.
The nuclear posture review typically names countries, the U.S. official told the AP. But the official would not confirm which countries are on the current list and whether any have been added or dropped from previous years.
In Russia, Dmitry Rogozin, who heads parliament's foreign affairs committee and has close ties to the Kremlin, told NTV television that his country ``should understand that a significant part of the United States' nuclear forces are of course aimed at objects in the Russian Federation, and we should draw our own strategic conclusions from this.''
Arms control advocates criticized what they said was a policy shift.
``For 56 years, the world has avoided nuclear weapons use despite many grave crises. The Bush administration is now dangerously lowering the threshold for wreaking nuclear devastation,'' said John Isaacs, president of the Council for a Livable World.
The identification of Iraq, Syria and Libya as potential targets could complicate the trip Vice President Dick Cheney was to begin Sunday to the Persian Gulf and the Middle East.
His main mission is to try to strengthen support among Arab leaders for the U.S.-led campaign against terrorism. Most are vehemently opposed to attacks on any Arab countries, including those the United States long has accused of fostering terrorism and seeking weapons of mass destruction.
Secretary of State Colin Powell and other senior administration officials have give public assurances there are no plans on President Bush's desk for attacking Iraq or any other nation.