WASHINGTON - President Bush dispatched Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld to the Persian Gulf region yesterday, further laying the groundwork for military action against Osama bin Laden, his terrorist network and the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.
In addition, the president sought to assure the Arab world of his interest in solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, saying for the first time that he favors Palestinian statehood.
Rumsfeld told reporters he is traveling to Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Oman and Uzbekistan, though he declined to specify the nature of his talks with leaders in those countries.
Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke told reporters that Rumsfeld will "talk about the campaign against terrorism and ... have talks at the highest levels" over the next several days.
"We do want consultations about the defense arrangements," she said.
Rumsfeld said there was no need to convince any of those countries of the links between bin Laden and his terrorist al-Qaida network and the Sept. 11 suicide attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. He broadened his indictment to include nations and regimes that harbor terrorists.
"There is no need for additional evidence," he said.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said the United States had sent information to "a large number of nations," which "powerfully made the case that the al-Qaida organization, led by Osama bin Laden, was responsible for what happened on the 11th of September."
"We traced the history of this organization, its recent activities and events, and events around the 11th, before and after. I think it's a persuasive case," Powell said.
On the Rumsfeld trip, a senior defense official said there are "small speed bumps" to work out with some of the countries, from which U.S. aircraft and troops are expected to launch military action against the terrorist cells of bin Laden and Afghanistan's ruling Taliban militia.
One of the most sensitive stops is Saudi Arabia. Bin Laden, an exiled native of the kingdom, has proclaimed the goal of driving U.S. forces out of the country and toppling its ruling dynasty.
While pledging to stand "shoulder to shoulder" with the United States, Saudis have voiced fears about how military operations would be conducted and seek assurance that civilian casualties would be kept to a minimum.
Saudi officials say the United States has not asked to use military bases in the kingdom for offensive operations, but that is one of the likely purposes of Rumsfeld's trip.
Besides meeting with Saudi defense officials, Rumsfeld is to confer with Crown Prince Abdullah and might see King Fahd, an Arab diplomat said.
Asked why Rumsfeld and not the secretary of state was making the trip, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said: "Because he's the appropriate person to go."
Like other Arab leaders, the Saudis have pressed the Bush administration to become more visibly involved in ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a source of anger throughout the Arab world against the United States, Israel's primary backer.
Bush said yesterday for the first time that a Palestinian state is part of the American vision of an Arab-Israeli peace settlement.
"The idea of a Palestinian state has always been part of a vision, so long as the right to Israel to exist is respected," Bush said.
"But first things first," he said. "When it comes to the Middle East, we've got to get to ... the Mitchell accord."
He referred to the agreement brokered by former Sen. George J. Mitchell of Maine for a series of steps that would lead to negotiations on a final settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
"Senator Mitchell put together a viable blueprint that most of the world agrees with is a necessary path to ultimately solving the problems of the Middle East," Bush said. "And we are working diligently with both sides to encourage the reduction of violence, so that meaningful discussions can take place."
The question that drew this response was prompted by articles in The New York Times and Washington Post saying that the Bush administration had been preparing to endorse the idea of a Palestinian state, but that plans were derailed by the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
The idea of a Palestinian state is no longer controversial - even Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has accepted it in theory. But Bush's statement was meant to assure the Arab world that its grievances were not being ignored.
The administration has avoided launching a major Middle East peace initiative, not wanting to repeat the high-profile failure of Bush's predecessor, Bill Clinton. But as the first anniversary of the most recent Israeli-Palestinian conflict approached in early September, Bush and his top national security and foreign policy advisers took a fresh look at the administration's low-profile approach, officials said.
No decision on a new direction was made. But preparations were under way for a major speech by Powell that would lay out American principles for a final settlement. The difficult issues that need to be resolved include the borders of a Palestinian state, sovereignty over Jerusalem and a "right of return" for Palestinian refugees.
Powell has pressured Israel and the Palestinians over the past two weeks to curb the violence and work on getting back to the Mitchell track. Any flare-up of violence could stir anti-Americanism in the Arab world, which views the United States as biased toward Israel, and undermine the anti-terror coalition Bush is putting together.
But U.S. officials want to avoid the impression that Powell's work on the Israeli-Palestinian front is driven solely by the Bush administration's new anti-terror goals, and say they have worked strenuously behind the scenes for months.
Some former diplomats are urging the administration to name a special Middle East envoy who would guide the two sides back to peace negotiations and free Powell to handle the diplomatic end of the war on terror.
In meetings here last week, Jordan's King Abdullah II is reported to have argued that a major U.S. peace initiative for the Middle East would have the effect of shortening the duration of any military action launched against terrorists by making the Arab world more cooperative.
As Rumsfeld set out for the Middle East, the United States already had deployed some 30,000 military personnel in the region, along with about 350 combat aircraft, two aircraft carriers and a Marine amphibious group.
Two more aircraft carriers are heading to the region, including the USS Kitty Hawk, which sailed from Japan yesterday without its 75 warplanes. Officials said the Kitty Hawk could serve as a floating base for ground troops and helicopters, much as a carrier hauled troops and choppers in 1994 as part of planned military action against Haiti.
One official said the Kitty Hawk could serve as a "lily pad" for the special forces that are expected to play a central role in any ground action.
U.S. military personnel, including special operations units from the Army and Air Force, are now on the ground in the nations that rim much of northern and eastern Afghanistan, including Pakistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, defense officials said. Rumsfeld said he would not be traveling to Pakistan, where U.S. forces have been seen setting up radar installations at remote air bases.
Also, C-130 cargo planes have been seen landing in Uzbekistan and unloading military equipment and personnel. News reports say that there are American units in Tajikistan, which is becoming a way station for Russian military equipment destined for the Northern Alliance, the guerrilla forces that control about 10 percent of Afghanistan and are fighting the Taliban militia.
Oman, at the base of the Persian Gulf, is allowing U.S. tanker and surveillance planes to use its airfields, military officials said.
One defense official said the necessary forces are in place for the most part, and the Pentagon may now need only to "tweak" its personnel and assets before any military action.
About 2,260 National Guard and Reserve troops were called to active duty yesterday, bringing the total to more than 22,400 from 44 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. The citizen soldiers activated yesterday included mostly military police and security forces, along with some intelligence specialists. No Maryland units were called up yesterday.
At the same time, the Senate by a vote of 99-0 approved a $345 billion Pentagon budget for the coming fiscal year, which represents an 11 percent increase over this year's budget. The House has approved a slightly smaller budget of $343 billion. Differences will be worked out in a joint House-Senate conference committee.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun