WASHINGTON/ISLAMABAD (REUTERS) — The United States Tuesday showed allies evidence it says links Osama bin Laden to the attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., then sent Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to brief Middle East leaders ahead of an expected strike on Afghanistan.
NATO, after hearing what its secretary-general called “clear and compelling” proof bin Laden was behind the attacks, invoked a mutual defense clause for the first time in its 52 years, giving the U.S. a green light to move against the Saudi-born fugitive and his protectors, Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban.
Rumsfeld said he would depart Tuesday for Saudi Arabia, Oman, Egypt and Uzbekistan for talks with leaders about military activities in the region, since hijackers slammed passenger jets into New York’s World Trade Center and the Pentagon near Washington Sept. 11. More than 5,700 people are missing or dead.
The announcement of Rumsfeld’s trip came as the United States and Britain massed their military might near Afghanistan, demanding its Taliban leaders turn bin Laden over to Washington.
The Taliban has refused to do so, even as U.S. and British aircraft carriers, more than 300 warplanes, ships armed with cruise missiles and special operations troops have gathered within striking range.
Despite expectations an attack was drawing closer, President Bush said there was “no timetable” for the Taliban. He also again rejected any negotiations with the Taliban.
“There’s no negotiations. There’s no calendar. We’ll act on our time. And we’ll do it in a manner that not only secures the United States as best as possible but makes freedom in the world more likely to exist in the future,” Bush told reporters in the Oval Office.
Along with the moves in what Bush has called a “war on terrorism,” the U.S. government took steps to jumpstart a stalled U.S. economy.
The Federal Reserve cut short-term interest rates for the second time since the attacks, slicing them by half a percentage point to their lowest level since the early 1960s.
The Fed said uncertainty about the future had dampened business and household spending, weakening an economy which was already teetering on the brink of recession before Sept. 11.
U.S. stock markets staged a late rally after the rate cut to finish up on the day. The Dow Jones industrial average gained 113.76 points, or 1.29 percent, while the NASDAQ composite rose 11.87 points, or 0.8 percent.
Bush also met with congressional leaders to work on an economic stimulus package that could include more tax cuts and moves to stimulate corporate investment. The White House and Congress also reached agreement on a pending budget bill that would increase spending on the military and education.
Bush said Washington’s Ronald Reagan National Airport, the last U.S. airport to remain closed since the attacks, would reopen on a limited basis.
The airport is just a few miles from the Pentagon and other potential Washington targets, including the White House. Its closure had dampened economic prospects for the capital and the mid-Atlantic region.
U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, who on the weekend warned Americans to brace for more attacks, especially as Bush’s war escalates, repeated his fears on Tuesday, but said they were based on assumption more than information.
“I believe the kind of attack which we endured shows that the risks of such possibilities are substantial,” he said after meeting with Canadian Solicitor-General Lawrence MacAulay.
Despite his warnings, First Lady Laura Bush insisted in an appearance on CNN’s “Larry King Live” that Americans were not in danger.
“But the fact is, most of us are safe. Nearly all of us are safe … we’re safe in our homes. We’re safe. We can continue to try to have a normal life,” she said.
Ashcroft also urged Congress to quickly pass legislation giving law enforcement expanded powers, including ones to wiretap phones and track Internet communications.
“I believe it’s time for us to understand that (these) tools can reduce the risk of terrorism; talk won’t,” he said.
The U.S. has detained some 500 people in the post-attack investigation. That, along with Ashcroft’s legislative proposals, has raised concerns among civil rights groups about abuse of government powers.
News reports said the Bush administration had planned a Middle East policy initiative, including endorsement of a Palestinian state, before the Sept. 11 attacks, but Secretary of State Colin Powell downplayed expectations that diplomatic action was imminent.
“We’ve had a plan since the administration came into office in January and that plan was to do everything we could to get violence down to the lowest possible levels,” he said after talks with Indian Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh.
“The events of Sept. 11 don’t really play into this. We were hard at work before Sept. 11 on trying to help in the region, and we are hard at work after Sept. 11,” Powell said.
A proposed Israeli-Palestinian truce that Washington hoped would help in building an international coalition ahead of military action suffered the latest in a series of blows on Tuesday, when Palestinian gunmen raided a Jewish settlement in the Gaza Strip, killing two Israelis and wounding 15 others.
In Afghanistan, Taliban ministers were moving around the country, some traveling from the capital, Kabul, to confer with their supreme leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, in his southern stronghold of Kandahar, and others fanning out to win the hearts and minds of both soldiers and civilians.
Taliban leaders remained defiant, saying any U.S. assault on their country would be an attack on Islam.
“Fight hard against attacks, defend your country,” Defense Minister Obaidullah said, rallying troops near the Pakistan border.
The Islamic fundamentalist group also dismissed U.S.-backed attempts to build an alternative Afghan government through the 86-year-old ex-King Zahir Shah, who has been living in exile in Italy since 1973.
Zahir Shah and the Northern Alliance, a guerrilla force battling to oust the Taliban, agreed on Monday to convene a grand national council, or Loya Jirga, aimed at ousting the Taliban and installing a moderate government.
Bush and other Western leaders stepped up the psychological pressure on the Taliban, apparently hoping to take advantage of any disunity within the ruling group and its supporters.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair reinforced the message at his Labor Party’s annual conference, declaring the Taliban had run out of chances to give up Osama bin Laden and must now brace for attack and surrender.
“We know those responsible … Be in no doubt at all. Bin Laden and his people organized this atrocity. The Taliban aid and abet him. He will not desist from further acts of terror, they will not stop helping,” he said.
“Surrender bin Laden or surrender power,” Blair warned the Taliban.