BEIJING – President Bush on Friday strolled atop China’s Great Wall before heading home from a six-day Asian tour that helped calm anxieties over his tough talk about combating an “axis of evil.”

In a swing through Japan, South Korea and China, Bush assured Asian leaders that he has no immediate plans to attack North Korea, Iran or Iraq, the three top targets in an expanded war on terrorism.

Although his hosts expressed relief, they did not fully embrace Bush’s desire for eventual action. Instead, they stressed their desire for peace.

“Bush’s saber-rattling stance was put aside, at least temporarily,” The Korea Times concluded in an editorial.

In Beijing, Chinese President Jiang Zemin served polite notice that he does not want to see military action against Iraq.

“As I made clear in my discussion with President Bush just now, the important thing is that peace is to be valued most,” he told reporters.

Even Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, one of Bush’s staunchest allies in Asia, stopped short of endorsing an expanded war. Koizumi said Japan would continue to support the anti-terror campaign but praised Bush for being “very calm and cautious” in his approach.

The relief reflected Bush’s personal diplomatic skills and a more measured U.S. approach to his “axis of evil.” His aides have drawn clear distinctions between Iraq, where they said the president had decided to oust Saddam Hussein, and Iran and North Korea, where they said the administration remained open to negotiations.

More recently, senior officials said, Secretary of State Colin Powell, CIA Director George Tenet and some top military officials have slowed the administration’s rush to confront Saddam.

The officials said Powell, backed by a chorus of foreign leaders, has warned that a headlong assault against Iraq could create unnecessary diplomatic problems. CIA officials have argued that it will take time to create a credible armed opposition to Saddam inside Iraq. And military officials have warned that American forces, already combating terrorism in Afghanistan, Somalia, the Philippines, Yemen and elsewhere, are stretched too thin.

“Some people thought it would be a good idea if we got ready first,” said one senior official, who asked not to be identified.

But this official and others said Bush hasn’t wavered from his conviction that Saddam’s pursuit of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, the possibility that he might provide some of them to terrorist groups and his animosity toward Israel make him an intolerable threat.

“We’re still saying he has to go,” said a second official. “We just want to do it right, and that will take some time.”

Bush assured Jiang that he has not made a decision about using force against Iraq and promised to consult other world leaders, said national security adviser Condoleezza Rice.

And Bush is extending an olive branch to North Korea, seeking anew to open a dialogue. On Friday, Secretary of State Colin Powell told reporters the United States would make contact with North Korea through the United Nations.

Even so, Bush failed to win big diplomatic breakthroughs on his fourth overseas outing as president.

North Korea again spurned his offer to talk, at least for now. And China declined to stop selling missile technology to countries that the United States considers dangerous.

U.S. officials had hoped to cap Bush’s Beijing visit with a binding commitment from China to halt the transfer of technology for weapons of mass destruction.

“There is no agreement, but that work is under way,” Rice said.

Bush and Jiang also remained far apart on the future of Taiwan, China’s record on human rights and Bush’s plans for a missile defense system.

Even so, Bush accomplished some of his more limited goals.

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In Japan, Koizumi assured Bush that he would take difficult steps to revive the world’s second-largest economy. Bush reciprocated by endorsing Koizumi’s economic plans.

In South Korea, Bush eased criticism over his “axis of evil” comments by stressing his desire for better relations with North Korea.

In China, he navigated a middle course between criticism of China’s record on human rights and nuclear proliferation, and cordial talks over trade and the war on terrorism.

Jiang accepted Bush’s invitation to visit the United States in October. Bush also met Vice President Hu Jintao, a mysterious figure who is considered Jiang’s likely successor.

Yan Xuetong, an influential analyst and frequent critic of the United States, said Bush’s visit was a big boost for U.S.-China relations.

Yan, executive director of Tsinghua University’s Institute of International Studies, said he was impressed by Bush’s speech to university students on Friday. In remarks that were broadcast live throughout China, Bush urged the students to embrace freedom while praising China’s people and culture.

Not everyone agreed with Yan’s assessment.

China’s Internet chat rooms bristled with sniping remarks, calling Bush “too proud,” “a real impudent guy” and “a really cunning fox.”

Before leaving China, Bush scored another diplomatic coup when Russia agreed for the first time to let Air Force One fly home from Asia over Russian airspace. That shaved 3 hours off the 16-hour flight – an hour in the air and two more because a refueling stop in Alaska was no longer needed.

After walking hand-in-hand with his wife, Laura, along the Great Wall, Bush seemed ready to return to the White House.

“Let’s go home,” he said before ducking into his limousine for the ride to Air Force One.

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