Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's last-minute trip to the Middle East is the United States' last act of diplomacy before it launches military strikes against Afghanistan, U.S. officials tell ABCNEWS.
Rumsfeld traveled to Saudi Arabia Wednesday, his first stop on a four-nation tour of the Middle East and Central Asia to secure support from Muslim-majority countries in a U.S. war on terrorism and press the case against Osama bin Laden, the prime suspect in the terrorist attacks on America. Upon his arrival in Riyadh, Rumsfeld met with the kingdom's defense minister Prince Sultan and Crown Prince Abdallah.
His arrival in the oil-rich Gulf state came just days after the prince said Saudi Arabia would not allow U.S. forces to launch anti-terrorism missions against Arabs or Muslims from its territory.
However, Saudi Arabia has cut diplomatic ties with the Taliban, the ruling regime in most of Afghanistan that has provided refuge for bin Laden and his terrorist group al Qaeda and refused to hand them over without seeing evidence of his involvement in the attacks.
As home to some of Islam's holiest sites and host to about 5,000 U.S. troops, Saudi Arabia is a strategic factor in the coalition. Officials say Rumsfeld wants assurance that the Saudi government will fully support an air campaign and give the United States access to a new military command center and at least 100 American combat planes that operate there.
"We have been deploying forces in the region and as a result of that we have these relationships with the countries there that seem to me that … sitting down face to face would be a healthy, good thing to do," Rumsfeld said. "We simply want them to understand firsthand, face to face, that as a representative for the United States, that our interest is in the sustained effort in creating conditions that will permit that."
Officials said Rumsfeld's visit and careful pleas for support give the Saudi Arabian government political cover, the appearance that they are providing aid to the United States only under intense pressure.
Other Key Visits Ahead
After talks in the Saudi capital, Rumsfeld headed for Oman, Egypt and Uzbekistan, a former Soviet republic that the secretary of defense indicated could be a key source of intelligence on suspected terrorist camps believed to be run by bin Laden in Afghanistan.
Rumsfeld said he saw a meeting with Uzbek officials as especially important. Uzbekistan shares an 85-mile-long border with Afghanistan, and the Uzbek government agreed to open its airspace to U.S. military operations. However, there have been reports that the Taliban threatened the Uzbek government with a jihad — holy war — if it gave the United States military assistance.
While Egypt has been relatively silent in stance on the U.S. war on terrorism, hundreds of Omani and British forces have been participating in military exercises in Oman. The British media has speculated that British forces assembled in Oman could be redeployed for a possible U.S.-led military attack against Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, Pentagon officials said the USS Kitty Hawk, which will serve as a floating base, is near the region and that U.S. special forces are already there, zeroing in on targets. Most of the 30,000 troops already in the region, officials say, are on alert.