As US-backed forces close in on the remaining members of al Qaida in Afghanistan, attention is turning to where the war on terrorism might move next. Nick Morrison reports.

EVEN as the first British troops are preparing to play their part in the peacekeeping force heading for Afghanistan, it seems there are some who want to see the war on terrorism train its sights on a new target. Although Osama bin Laden may be still at large, the capture of the last stronghold held by his al Qaida network in Afghanistan - the Tora Bora caves in the east - has given a new impetus to efforts to build on this success.

While revenge for the World Trade Centre atrocity may have played a strong role in the initial support for military action, there is a growing feeling that now the US has started along this road, there is no reason to turn back. According to a poll yesterday, more than half the US public wants to extend the war, with Iraq seemingly in the firing line.

So far, it seems President Bush's allies in the international coalition are less than happy at the prospect of broadening their action, and are no more enthusiastic following the speed of success in Afghanistan, much quicker than all but the most optimistic had forecast. But it seems the US may be prepared to go it alone, and there is no doubt that Iraq is the prime target, according to Rhiannon Talbot, a lecturer at Newcastle University who has carried out research into terrorism.

But, although Iraq was named by the US as one of the seven prime sponsors of terrorism last year - along with Iran, Syria, Libya, North Korea, Sudan and Cuba - it is not so much its backing of Islamic militants which makes it the most likely contender.

"Obviously, where President Bush would like to go next is Iraq," she says. "Unlike Syria and Iran, the Iraqis are willing to fund any organisation which has a goal involving undermining America. But Iraq doesn't have the resources that are available to some of the others, not so much because it is poorer, but because of economic sanctions. The amount of foreign capital it can give to these people is very small.

"But the US is worried about Saddam Hussein, not so much for what he is sponsoring, but for the capabilities he may be trying to develop for himself. It is almost a pre-emptive strike against countries which the US perceives might pose a military threat to the integrity of the United States."

Saddam's efforts to develop chemical and biological weapons, uncovered before UN inspectors were expelled, have added a chilling dimension to the threat. And there is also a feeling of unfinished business from the Gulf War of 1991. The failure to continue with the advance to Baghdad is seen in some circles among the US military as an error which needs to be rectified. But overthrowing Saddam may prove harder than toppling the Taliban, according to Ms Talbot.

"Iraq is quite different to Afghanistan," she says. "There is no Northern Alliance, although some within the US administration think there might be with the Kurds. But there is no way the Kurds can fight a war in the way the Northern Alliance has.

"The Americans may think they can foster a situation like Afghanistan, and get different groups to do their work for them, but it won't happen. There is a possibility they will go there, but it would be sheer folly."

As far as sponsors of terrorism go, Iran is still considered the chief culprit, with close links to Palestinian groups, particularly Hizbollah, which operates out of Lebanon. But Iran's initial support for US retaliation after September 11 makes it an unlikely target, says Ms Talbot.

Another state which is a major source for terrorist funding, but equally unlikely to find itself in the firing line, although for very different reasons, is Saudi Arabia, one of the key US allies in the Middle East.

"Saudi Arabia has been funding the PLO since the Americans thought the PLO was the world's biggest bad guy," says Ms Talbot. "There is a lot of support for the Palestinians, and a lot of emotional blackmail over the plight of the Palestinians, which makes the Saudis open their cheque books without necessarily having a political allegiance.

"But Saudi Arabia isn't going to fall out of bed with the US too much, because it can't afford to, both militarily and economically. I think the US will focus on states which it thinks are going to be a direct threat, which the Middle East isn't."

One which might fall into this category is Colombia, where the US has been actively backing the government's battle against the drug cartels. More direct intervention would also have the advantage of convincing Muslims that the war on terrorism does not have religious overtones.

'The war on drugs and the war on terrorism do overlap," says Ms Talbot. "The Americans have been extending their involvement in Colombia quite significantly, they have sent in a lot of troops and stepped up their anti-terrorist programme, with the result that a lot of drugs production has shifted to Ecuador."

So far, Tony Blair has appeared reluctant to involve Britain in any broader action, and is unlikely to have his hand forced, with the US quite prepared to act alone. But this could have serious repercussions, says Ms Talbot.

"The Americans might be brought to realise that the consequences of going it alone would be quite significant," she says. "The groups that are most likely to be targeted are ones that represent themselves with religious language, although it doesn't mean their crimes are religious.

"But if the US goes for that kind of group, then the international coalition will fall apart, because it will be perceived to be a war against Islam."

While the Americans may find the special forces of both Britain and France useful, the fact it is the US putting in the bulk of the money and the hardware, means they are unlikely to be too worried about the lack of allies in phase two of the war on terrorism. But this whole approach has a more serious flaw, Ms Talbot believes.

"Long term, I think it would be absolutely disastrous," she says. "Terrorism is a bit of a hydra: if you fight it purely as a military power, it will just grow back. We will fragment and splinter these groups, and they will then pop up somewhere else.

"That may happen anyway, but if you do that without any coalition in place, then other states are more likely to become more involved in paying for terrorism. We will go back to the situation in the late 1970s, when there were more countries which openly sponsored terrorism.

"There are some people who believe that if the Americans do extend this war to Iraq, the potential in terms of a regional war is immense. The Middle East is so tense, and if you have America trying to take out Iraq, and it is seen as an attack against Islam, then there may well be attacks on Israel.

"And, if Israel is going to be the first port of call for the backlash against America, then it could be very serious. Since the last regional war, there has been a build-up of military power, and if there is a war, then Israel could go down. That is the worst case scenario, but it is not impossible."

And it would be a mistake to see the success of the war on terrorism so far as a reason to continue, she says. "The Americans think they are doing quite well, and they are doing something about al Qaida, but al Qaida isn't crushed, there is just a nucleus in Afghanistan and there are cells all over the rest of the world. I don't think we would be forced to take part, but I would not be surprised if we got dragged into it, although I think we shouldn't let that happen. People realise that not only would it be futile, but also that the political and economic repercussions are horrendous."