Los Angeles Times
WASHINGTON The Bush administration yesterday presented evidence to its key allies that it said links Osama bin Laden to the Sept. 11 attacks, and dispatched Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to the Middle East to consult with allies in the anti-terrorism campaign.
The two steps increased the pressure on Afghanistan”s Taliban regime to hand over bin Laden, and were seen as necessary preconditions to military action in Afghanistan, where the terrorist leader makes his headquarters. The flurry of activity seemed to point to an imminent strike, though administration officials refused to discuss timing.
President Bush repeated his demand to the Taliban to turn over bin Laden and other leaders of the al-Qaida terrorist network. But the president gave Afghanistan”s Muslim fundamentalist government no hint of how much more time it might have before facing military force.
“I have said that the Taliban must turn over the al-Qaida organization living within Afghanistan and must destroy the terrorist camps otherwise there will be a consequence,” Bush told reporters following a meeting with congressional leaders. “There are no negotiations. There”s no calendar. We”ll act on our time.”
Rumsfeld was set to leave last night for Saudi Arabia, Oman, Egypt and Uzbekistan, taking off just hours after Bush gave him the assignment. Saudi Arabia, Oman and Egypt are traditional U.S. allies in the region, but Uzbekistan, a former Soviet republic strategically located on Afghanistan”s northern border, has never loomed particularly large in U.S. diplomacy before.
Victoria Clarke, the Pentagon”s senior spokeswoman, said Rumsfeld “plans to talk about the campaign against terrorism and have significant consultations over there.”
Before heading to the airport, Rumsfeld said it is important to talk to potential allies, especially President Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan.
“It seemed to me that given their geography and their situation, that having a face-to-face meeting with the leadership (of Uzbekistan) would be a useful thing,” he said.
Karimov has agreed to open his country”s airspace for U.S. military overflights but has left the status of Uzbekistan”s valuable air bases unclear.
“Uzbekistan supports the resolution of the United States and all other peace-loving countries in the world to put an end to this evil, the plague of the 21st century terrorism,” Karimov said late Monday. “Uzbekistan is ready to make its contribution to the cause of liquidating terrorists” bases and camps in Afghanistan, and is ready to allow the use of its airspace for these purposes.”
Yesterday, the U.S. government presented a detailed package of information to its NATO allies and to the government of Pakistan. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the information was also given to other countries but he declined to name them.
U.S. and European officials said the evidence includes transcripts of intercepted communications along with information concerning bin Laden”s participation in earlier terrorist attacks. These officials said the intelligence was supplied both by the British government and U.S. agencies.
Frank Taylor, the State Department”s counter-terrorism chief discussed the evidence with NATO representatives in Brussels, Belgium. In Islamabad, Pakistan, U.S. Ambassador Wendy Chamberlin presented the evidence gathered thus far to Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf in a meeting that lasted 90 minutes.
U.S. officials have acknowledged that they must establish the guilt of bin Laden and al-Qaida if they hope to retain the high ground in world public opinion that they have held since the Sept. 11 attacks. Some Arab leaders, although expressing support for U.S. counter-terrorism plans, have said that it is extremely important for Washington to show that it is going after the correct culprits.
“We are building a very strong case against al-Qaida,” Boucher said. “This is a process of amassing information. There is a great body of evidence that indicates clearly to us and to others that al-Qaida was responsible. We have said all along we”ll be sharing that information with foreign governments as we can.”
He said the information is classified and will not be made public for the time being.
In Brussels, NATO secretary-general George Robertson said the United States offered “clear and compelling evidence.” He added, “It is clear that all roads lead to al-Qaida and pinpoint Osama bin Laden as having been involved in it.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin said the United States has not provided his government with conclusive evidence of bin Laden”s complicity in the Sept. 11 attacks, apparently because the CIA does not yet trust Russian intelligence services.
But Putin said Russia doesn”t need much more information.
“We don”t need additional evidence of bin Laden”s participation in these attacks,” he said. “That”s already clear to our special services.” However, Russian intelligence agencies haven”t yet determined precisely what role bin Laden played, “and our American colleagues could be helpful in this respect.”
In Pakistan, Musharraf had repeatedly said that the administration should come forward with proof of its allegations against bin Laden. A senior Pakistani diplomatic source said Chamberlin provided a detailed outline of the case against bin Laden and al-Qaida, supported by notes and documents.
Asked whether Pakistan still needed to be convinced about bin Laden”s possible involvement in the Sept. 11, the source said the information was more likely to be used in convincing moderate elements of Afghanistan”s fundamentalist Taliban regime to split from Mullah Mohammed Omar, their leader. Omar has allowed bin Laden to stay in Afghanistan even at the risk of a U.S. military attack.
But clearly Musharraf has another audience he”d like to convince. More than 10,000 supporters of a pro-Taliban Islamic party paraded through Islamabad, the Pakistani capital, denouncing Musharraf and the United States. Police were so concerned about the crowd and the level of anti-Western emotion that they confined international journalists to their hotel.
Meanwhile, the Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, Abdul Salam Zaeef, struck a somewhat conciliatory tone yesterday at a news conference in the southwestern Pakistani city of Quetta.
Zaeef asked for negotiations with the United States and said the Bush administration should turn over proof of bin Laden”s guilt to the Taliban government.
“We are ready for negotiations,” Zaeef said. “It is up to the other side to agree or not. Only the way of negotiation will solve our problems.”