Bush dispatches Rumsfeld to Mideast as U.S.-Britain turn up pressure against Taliban
WASHINGTON (AP) – President Bush sent Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld on a four-nation mission Tuesday that could be a prelude to military strikes against terrorists. Bush warned Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban ”there will be a consequence” if they fail to surrender Osama bin Laden and his followers.
The defense secretary was leaving Tuesday night for military talks with leaders in Saudi Arabia, Oman, Egypt and Uzbekistan, key members of Bush’s growing coalition. Uzbekistan borders Afghanistan, where terrorist suspect bin Laden is being sheltered by the Taliban government. Rumsfeld’s first scheduled stop was Riyadh, the Saudi capital.
Building a case for war, U.S. diplomats shared confidential evidence with allies linking bin Laden’s al-Qaida network to the Sept. 11 attacks and other terrorists acts. America’s 18 NATO partners said the information was conclusive and formally declared the attacks on New York and Washington an assault against the alliance.
Bush sought to shore up his support in the Arab world, saying for the first time that the idea of a Palestinian state is part of the Middle East peace process. British Prime Minister Tony Blair, in step with Bush, planned a trip to Pakistan to solidify the U.S.-led campaign against the Taliban.
But first, the prime minister issued a threat to the hard-line Taliban. ”Surrender the terrorists or surrender power,” Blair said during a Brighton, England, address to his Labor Party.
Rounding out a day that underscored Bush’s broad campaign against terrorism, the Pentagon added more than 2,000 reservists to its gathering war effort.
”We put together a coalition of nations that says terrorism won’t stand,” Bush said while announcing the reopening of Reagan National Airport outside Washington, the last airport still closed from the attacks three weeks ago. ”We’ve got our military on alert for a reason: Terrorism won’t stand. We’re cutting off their money because we’re saying, terrorism won’t stand.”
The White House welcomed Blair’s forceful remarks – which went further, predicting an overthrow of the Taliban, than Bush himself has been willing to go. Senior White House officials, briefed in advance about Blair’s address, said the president shared Blair’s belief that the Taliban must bow to U.S. demands or surrender power.
”The prime minister was echoing exactly what I said” to Congress, Bush told reporters who accompanied him Tuesday night to a downtown restaurant, where he and first lady Laura Bush dined with Washington Mayor Anthony Williams.
The administration’s rhetoric against the Taliban has increased in forcefulness, with aides beginning to say only late last week that the United States would assist forces that oppose the regime. Though he has threatened military action, Bush has stopped just short of calling for the Taliban’s overthrow.
”The Taliban must turn over al-Qaida (terrorists) living within Afghanistan, and must destroy the terrorist camps,” Bush said. ”And they must do so, otherwise there will be a consequence. There are no negotiations. There’s no calendar. We’ll act on our time.”
As the politicians talked, the military prepared for war.
The Pentagon announced that 2,263 National Guard and Reserve troops were called to active duty, bringing the total reserves mobilized to more than 22,400.
About 30,000 American military members are in the region, including two aircraft carrier battle groups and 350 planes. Two additional aircraft carriers are under way.
The administration hoped to keep the Taliban guessing about U.S. military plans.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer suggested that nothing else needs to be done ”before military action can be taken.”
In Pakistan, the nation’s foreign ministry spokesman said Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers had been told they ”don’t have much time” to stave off military strikes.
But several U.S. officials said Rumsfeld’s mission suggests Bush has some work to do first.
The announcement of Rumsfeld’s trip ended debate within the administration over whether Bush should send him or Secretary of State Colin Powell, the nation’s top diplomat. Bush’s decision was meant to signal his resolve to use U.S. military might against al-Qaida and, if necessary, the Taliban, officials said.
Elsewhere, Bush’s coordinator for anti-terrorism activity presented NATO the administration’s evidence against bin Laden and al-Qaida. Secretary-General Lord Robertson called the information ”clear and compelling,” though it was not made public.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said U.S. ambassadors briefed allies. He joined a chorus of U.S. officials dismissing the Taliban’s demand for proof before turning over bin Laden.
A lengthy, detailed summary of the evidence was sent by confidential channels to U.S. allies Monday night. It provides a history of crimes thought to have been committed by bin Laden and al-Qaida and links both the bin Laden and his network to the Sept. 11 attacks, said a senior administration official speaking on condition of anonymity.
Associates of bin Laden who were involved in the East Africa embassy bombings in 1998 and the attack on the USS Cole last year also took part in the Sept. 11 attacks, other officials said.
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