Rumsfeld heads to the gulf

Defense secretary to lay groundwork for anti-terror strike

`No need for more evidence'

Bush assures Arabs, supports statehood for the Palestinians

October 03, 2001|By Tom Bowman and Mark Matthews | Tom Bowman and Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

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.

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