U.S. has proof on bin Laden, NATO says

18 allies prepared to fight alongside Americans if asked


BRUSSELS, Belgium - NATO said yesterday that the United States has provided "clear and compelling proof" that Osama bin Laden's terrorist organization was behind the attacks Sept. 11 on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. In response, the alliance said it was ready to fight at the side of the United States if Washington seeks such help from its 18 NATO allies.

The alliance's decision amounted to a final stamp of approval for an attack on bin Laden, his al-Qaida network and the Taliban government that harbors him in Afghanistan and was one of several signals that some sort of military strike is imminent.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld left Washington last night for Egypt, Oman, Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan. Administration officials said the Pentagon was devising a war plan minimizing the use of bases in Pakistan, where anti-American sentiment is strong and extensive deployment of U.S. troops could destabilize a key ally.

Bases in Central Asia and the Persian Gulf, along with aircraft carriers, are possible alternatives.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, in an interview yesterday that administration officials had been briefing allies on what he called "pretty good information" establishing the link between the airplane attacks and bin Laden. "It is not evidence in the form of a court case," he said.

Powell alluded to past crimes attributed to al-Qaida and bin Laden, who has been indicted in the United States in the August 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa and is suspected of masterminding the bombing of the destroyer USS Cole in Yemen in October of last year.

The secretary of state said the briefings spanned "the history of the organization and the fact that we have every right to go after them because they've already been indicted, al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden, for past crimes against the United States and, I think, civilization."

The briefings also included evidence showing what Powell called "additional activities since those indictments that have caused them to become very suspect." Finally, the briefings contained what the secretary said is "pretty good information that links them to the events of the 11th of September."

`The facts are clear'

NATO's secretary - general, Lord Robertson, referring to the evidence presented by Frank X. Taylor, the U.S. ambassador at large, as "classified," said only that "the facts are clear and compelling."

A NATO official said the briefings, which were oral, without slides or documents, did not report a direct order from bin Laden or indicate that the Taliban knew about the attacks beforehand.

A senior diplomat of one closely allied nation characterized the briefing as containing "nothing particularly new or surprising" and said that "it was descriptive and narrative rather than forensic. There was no attempt to build a legal case."

The evidence was built not only on information from the United States, but also on what some allies, including the Germans, an of- ficial in Europe said.

Robertson was reticent to discuss the kind of military action being contemplated.

"The United States are still developing their thinking, and they will come back to the alliance in due course when that thinking is crystallized," he said.

At a NATO meeting last week, some European nations pressed for evidence that would justify attacks on bin Laden. A compelling case is deemed crucial by many diplomats if the United States is to maintain its support for a military campaign, particularly from countries such as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, whose rulers face skeptical Muslim populations.

How much information to share has been the subject of debate among Bush's advisers. Some European officials suggested that Washington was withholding information about some aspects of the case.

Mutual defense clause

NATO moved swiftly to offer political support the day after the Sept. 11 attacks. It said then that it would invoke the mutual defense clause for the first time in the alliance's 52-year history "if it was determined that the attack was directed from abroad."

The clause, devised during the Cold War as a mechanism to bring the United States automatically to Europe's defense in the event of Soviet invasion, considers an attack on one member an attack on them all.

Yesterday's action effectively removed the "if" from the Sept. 12 statement.

Whether the United States will ask for military support from NATO remains uncertain.

Last week, Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy defense secretary, suggested it was unlikely that Washington would turn to NATO. "If we need collective action, we will ask for it," he said after meeting with NATO members in Brussels. "We don't anticipate that at the moment."

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