Navy ships and U.S. warplanes headed for the Persian Gulf region Wednesday as President Bush prepared to address the nation and enlisted world leaders in providing logistical and covert support for retaliatory strikes against those responsible for last week's terrorist attacks.
White House officials said there would be no announcements of military action in the Thursday night speech to Congress, but as part of a military buildup named "Operation Infinite Justice," the Pentagon sent out an aircraft carrier battle group from Norfolk, Va., and nearly 100 Air Force planes to bases in the Persian Gulf, the Indian Ocean and the Central Asian republics of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.
Those two remote former Soviet republics border Afghanistan, reported hideout of exiled Saudi millionaire Osama bin Laden, regarded by the Bush administration as the prime suspect in last week's attacks.
In recruiting a global coalition to find those responsible for the attacks on New York and the Pentagon, Bush singled out the pledge of support Wednesday by Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf to help the U.S. Musharraf is risking the wrath of his Islamic population, much of which regards bin Laden as a freedom fighter.
Pakistan's pledge of help ranges from intelligence on the ruling Afghan Taliban party to air rights for U.S. warplanes to logistical support. The help was already visible Wednesday. According to a military official in Washington, a small number of U.S. troops had been spotted moving satellite and radar equipment on an air base in southwestern Pakistan.
At the White House, Bush played host to President Megawati Sukarnoputri of Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim country. Megawati offered no specific pledge of support, beyond saying that Indonesia was "against violence . . . including acts of terrorism."
For the Bush administration, the main point of the meeting was part of what Condoleezza Rice, Bush's national security adviser, described as the battle of will and mind. With meetings with Persian Gulf diplomats, a visit earlier this week to a mosque and the meeting with Indonesia's leader, Bush was countering critics in the Mideast who accuse him of waging war on Islam.
"We don't view this as a war of religion in any way, shape or form," Bush said. "And for those who try to pit religion against religion, our great nation will stand up and reject that kind of thought."
Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov told Bush on Wednesday that his country will stand by the U.S. even if Bush's plans include military action. Ivanov said U.S. and Russian intelligence agencies already are working closely together. And in a key concession, Ivanov said Russia would have no objection to Uzbekistan and Tajikistan cooperating with the U.S.
Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal meet with Secretary of State Colin Powell on Wednesday and later told reporters his government would take steps to freeze funds moving from Saudi bank accounts to terrorist organizations "if it is true."
In a deployment order, Bush approved the dispatch of dozens of Air Force F-15E and F-16 fighters, as well as surveillance, refueling and cargo aircraft to beef up forces already patrolling the no-fly zones over Iraq, according to a senior defense official. B-1 and B-52 bombers will be moving to the Indian Ocean island base of Diego Garcia, controlled by Britain. F-15E Strike Eagle fighter-bombers are to operate out of Uzbekistan, the official said.
Bush to address nation
The president's planned 8 p.m. CDT Thursday address already was drawing comparisons to President Franklin Roosevelt's "day of infamy" speech after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The White House sought to play down the connection, saying this war will be unlike any other.
Despite the dispatch of formidable U.S. firepower, administration officials have yet to lay out a clear a military strategy and increasingly describe force as a secondary option in a multifaceted conflict. Instead, the deployments are being portrayed as keeping options open for Bush. They also may be designed to intimidate terrorist-sponsoring nations into compliance with U.S. demands.
"I know there are a lot of comparisons to Pearl Harbor, but this is different, and it's different in a lot of ways," Rice told reporters at the White House.
This time there will be no capitals to conquer, no beaches to storm.
"There will be, undoubtedly, some things that our military forces and the military forces of others can do," Rice said. "But this is also a war of will and mind. It is a war in which information may be the most important asset that we have. . . . These are not traditional enemies.
"The United States is repositioning some of its forces to support the president's goal," Rice said. A second defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity, elaborated that the mission would be to "support efforts to identify, locate and hold accountable terrorists and those who support and harbor them."
Wednesday's deployments are expected to be only the first of many.
"There are movements, and you will see more movements," said Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz.
The carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt steamed out of the Navy's main East Coast base in Norfolk, Va., Wednesday to the strains of "New York, New York," along with an exhortation from Navy Secretary Gordon England to "pick up the mantle to destroy terrorism and remove this cancer."
The carrier's normal, scheduled deployment required no presidential order. Its original destination was the Mediterranean Sea, but defense officials said it would be in position in a few weeks to join two other carriers, the USS Carl Vinson in the Persian Gulf, and the USS Enterprise in the Arabian Sea. Each carrier has a complement of about 75 war planes.
Accompanying the departing carrier was a battle group including two attack submarines and two surface warships capable of launching Tomahawk cruise missiles. Joining the carrier group was an Amphibious Ready group led by the assault ship USS Bataan. In all the flotilla includes 15,000 sailors and 2,100 Marines.
Adm. Robert Natter, commander of the Atlantic Fleet, declined to describe the destination or mission of the ships, or whether they carried any special equipment for commando-style assaults on terrorists.
"They're fully loaded, let's just put it that way," Natter said.
Now that Pakistan has agreed to cooperate, the carriers and bombers based on Diego Garcia give Bush the freedom to launch strikes on suspected terrorist targets without gaining the permission of any countries other than Britain.
The warplanes deploying to long-established U.S. bases in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain will likely take up slack in the Iraqi patrol missions left by carriers repositioning off the coast of Pakistan. Those Persian Gulf countries have typically been reluctant to allow the U.S. to use their bases for launching heavy strikes.
Military experts and even Bush administration officials acknowledge that Afghanistan offers few, if any, inviting targets for U.S. air power.
"I think it's going to be sheer madness," former Pakistani Lt. Gen. Hameed Gul told Reuters Television. "I don't think that this is a winnable war."
One possible mission for the warplanes deploying to the region could be to provide cover for U.S. or allied special forces if they are ordered into Afghanistan to find bin Laden and his associates. They could also be used to strike other nations such as Iraq that the administration says sponsor terrorist groups.
In Kabul, the Afghan capital, about 700 Muslim clerics from the Taliban considered a U.S. request that Afghanistan hand over bin Laden.
`It's time for action'
At the White House, spokesman Ari Fleischer rejected the notions of negotiations. "The president's message to the Taliban is very simple," he said. "It's time for action, not negotiations."
Musharraf did not pledge Pakistan's unqualified support. In a televised address to his nation, the Pakistani leader urged caution.
"I'm telling America that whatever they do, whatever their worries are, that they must show balance and reason," Musharraf said. He framed his support for the U.S. as essential to Pakistan's security. "If we make any wrong move at this time, this will have huge repercussions."
The Bush administration placed Musharraf under intense diplomatic pressure. Publicly, it was all smiles following Musharraf's speech.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun