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.
U.S. officials have said said they will not negotiate with the Taliban over bin Laden, but they have presented material to other nations. So far, 18 NATO allies and several other nations, convinced of bin Laden's involvement in the attacks, have pledged their support behind the U.S. war on terrorism.
Meanwhile, the Taliban finds itself increasingly isolated:
A group of Pakistani clerics today canceled a mission to meet with Taliban leaders in Kandahar, Afghanistan.
Ameerul Azeem, spokesman for the Jamaat-e-Islami or Islamic Party, told The Associated Press the trip was canceled because the clerics saw no hopes of convincing the Taliban to turn over bin Laden and avoid the threat of war.
Preparing for Chemical, Biological Attacks
In Washington, a Senate Appropriations subcommittee conducted a hearing Wednesday on how the United States can prepare for and combat a terrorist attack involving chemical and biological weapons.
"People, Americans, should not be scared into believing they need gas masks and people should not be frightened into hoarding medicine and food. There is nothing we know of to warrant such actions," Tommy Thompson, secretary of Health and Human Services, told the committee.
Some senators want Congress to spend $1.4 billion to improve the nation's health system so it could better fight bioterrorism. Thompson said he has asked the Bush administration for $800 million, most to be sent to local and state public health systems.
"The threat is real. The overall probability is low … yet it's increasing," said Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., who introduced the spending bill along with Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.
Thompson said 400 tons of medical supplies are kept at eight secret sites around the country. Vaccines and antibiotics could be shipped anywhere within 12 hours, he said.
The Sept. 11 attacks involved four hijacked airplanes, three of which crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Shortly after the planes crashed, some officials feared they may have carried biological weapons, although this was not the case.
State Department officials have issued warnings about more possible terror attacks on U.S. soil and the specter of a biological attack has grown. Officials have evidence that some of the hijackers may have considered chemical warfare involving the use of crop dusters.
The Bush administration insists the United States is ready for such an attack, although some in Congress disagree.
In other developments:
President Bush visited New York for a second time since the attacks on the World Trade Center, visiting grade-school children who saw one hijacked jetliner crash into the second twin tower, and visiting with firefighters. He also promised to ask Congress to pass an economic stimulus package worth $60 billion to $75 billion
The United States asked NATO for permission to use the airspace of the 18 other member-nations, as well as for use of European air bases and access to NATO fuel pipelines, among other requests, according to sources in the alliance.
A deployment order for 1,000 troops has been given to the 10th Mountain Division, based at Fort Drum, N.Y. The order puts the troops on alert, ready to move instantly when a destination is determined.
The Bush administration and the Senate Judiciary Committee continue to argue over anti-terrorism legislation, focusing on sharing grand jury information among government agencies. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the chairman of the committee, had proposed a provision that would require the Justice Department to notify a federal judge after passing information obtained by a grand jury to intelligence agencies. The Bush administration initially sought to make such information generally available to the intelligence community, but Leahy says the White House later withdrew the proposal. White House Counsel Al Gonzales told ABCNEWS that the CIA and FBI thought the provision was not effective.
Russian President Vladimir Putin received a report from U.S. officials on the evidence against bin Laden. Putin, who reaffirmed his support Tuesday for a U.S.-led military action against terrorism, softened his tone on NATO expansion to the east, suggesting it could be possible for Russia to look at the alliance as a political entity, rather than a military one.
Pakistan says it is studying evidence provided by the United States that seeks to link bin Laden to the Sept. 11 attacks."Today we received some more material which is being studied … in reference to the question of both evidence and the status of investigations," Foreign Ministry spokesman Riaz Mohammad Khan told a news briefing. Khan said the information was "being studied by the concerned people" and he was not in a position to say more.
At the site of the World Trade Center attack, the casualty toll was revised down for the second time this week, as officials are finding more duplications on various lists. The count stands at 4,986 missing, with an additional 369 confirmed dead, 310 of whom have been identified. New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said that urns filled with soil from the site of the World Trade Center would be given to victims' families.
The Washington Post reported that the CIA secretly trained and equipped Pakistani commandos to capture or kill bin Laden in 1999. The paper also reported that three years before, the agency considered an offer from the government of Sudan to arrest him and place him in Saudi custody.
The anti-Taliban Northern Alliance says it expects fresh arms deliveries from Russia and Iran and desperately needs humanitarian aid to cope with a flood of refugees fleeing Taliban-controlled areas.
An aide to ex-Afghan King Zahir Shah says he will go to Italy to consult the exiled monarch, amid growing international pressure to depose the Taliban. His announcement coincides with Italian Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Margherita Boniver saying that Pakistan, previously the main backer of Taliban, wanted the former king to quickly send an emissary to Islamabad to discuss the future of Afghanistan. Zahir Shah, 86, has been living in exile in Rome since 1973 when he was toppled in a coup by his cousin Sardar Muhammad Daoud.