U.S. woos Saudis, carefully

Unrest, Conflicts and WarNational SecurityTerrorismCivil UnrestDefenseSaudi ArabiaPakistan

Racing to cement support for possible military strikes against Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld met Wednesday with members of the Saudi royal family and signaled that U.S. forces still might be permitted to use Saudi bases in the war on terrorism.

"Those kinds of things get worked out," Rumsfeld said in Riyadh, though he skirted direct questions about whether the United States would be able to use a command center at Prince Sultan Air Base to coordinate the anticipated strikes against terrorist targets in Afghanistan. The Saudi government has said its bases will not be used to strike against Muslims.

Rumsfeld added that he believed there was little doubt "in anyone's mind" that military action will take place against Afghanistan, home base of Osama bin Laden, the prime suspect in the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and the Pentagon.

The U.S.-led coalition appeared to gain support from Pakistan, with the Pakistani foreign minister saying the U.S. had presented strong evidence linking bin Laden to the attacks. Pakistan is the only nation to maintain relations with the Taliban.

Even as its isolation grew, the Taliban again refused to turn over bin Laden and again offered to negotiate with the U.S.

On Capitol Hill, the House and Senate worked on bills to increase police powers to combat terrorism. Secretary of State Colin Powell met with key senators to reassure them that a strike against bin Laden and his Al Qaeda terrorist network would not enrage Muslims worldwide.

The Pentagon disputed reports that members of an elite mountain division had been sent to staging areas near the Afghan border but said some of the troops were being prepared for possible overseas deployment.

Rumsfeld, making the first of four stops in key Arab and Central Asian nations considered crucial to the U.S. coalition, met with Saudi King Fahd, Crown Prince Abdullah and Prince Sultan, the kingdom's minister of defense. Vice President Dick Cheney made a similar coalition-building trip just before the Persian Gulf war, when he was defense secretary.

Rumsfeld said he told the Saudis that President Bush is sensitive to Arab concerns, and mentioned recent U.S. aid to Muslim nations such as Bosnia and Afghanistan.

"We recognize that there are elements in the world--terrorists and terrorist networks--that make an active effort to turn that portion of the globe against the West and the United States," he said.

In a news conference, Prince Sultan said the U.S. had not asked to use Saudi bases to launch attacks against the Taliban and that he and Rumsfeld had not discussed the issue.

"We do not feel there are any strikes that are going to be taken against the Taliban," he said.

Rumsfeld, asked whether he had come to Riyadh to iron out such issues, indicated he saw no insurmountable problems.

"To the extent that nations are well-knitted together at the top ... those kinds of things get worked out," he said. "The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, as the keeper of the holy places in their religion, has a special responsibility, and we recognize that and are comfortable with it."

The U.S. has planes based permanently in Saudi Arabia, as well as about 5,000 troops.

Focus on intelligence

The defense secretary was scheduled to visit Oman and Egypt on Thursday for meetings with officials there. On Friday, he is scheduled to go to Uzbekistan, a former Soviet republic that could be a key ally in providing airstrips for possible strikes and intelligence about bin Laden's whereabouts.

"It's not going to be a cruise missile or a bomber that's going to be the determining factor," Rumsfeld said. "It's going to be a scrap of information . . . that will enable us to pull this network up by its roots and end it."

The U.S. hopes to get important intelligence from Pakistan, which until recently supported the Taliban. But Pakistani Foreign Minister Abdul Sattar said the U.S. had compiled enough evidence against bin Laden to "impress masses of people throughout the world."

Although Pakistan promised to support the U.S. immediately after the attacks, officials insisted that they would not support strikes against Afghanistan without conclusive proof of the Saudi exile's guilt.

On Wednesday, Sattar told CNN "we will respect ... the judgment the U.S. has made."

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the Bush administration's most ardent ally in the terrorism campaign, is expected to visit Islamabad on Friday to press the coalition's case.

Pakistani officials have sent several delegations to Afghanistan to persuade the Taliban to surrender bin Laden; all have been unsuccessful.

"Pakistan has conveyed to the Taliban what the situation is, what are the dangers, what the international community is expecting them to do," a Foreign Ministry spokesman said in Islamabad. "We have told them they don't have much time."

Muslim clerics from Pakistan canceled a plan to visit the Taliban's headquarters, saying they saw little hope of a breakthrough.

In Afghanistan

In northern Afghanistan, the foreign minister of the opposition Northern Alliance said he was expecting arms from Iran and Russia and was ready to meet with Rumsfeld in Uzbekistan. Pentagon officials would not say whether Rumsfeld would do so.

The minister, Abdullah Abdullah, said he had met with U.S. officials in recent days outside Afghanistan, and that the alliance was coordinating its offensive with American help.

There were reports that leading members of the Taliban had fled their headquarters in Kandahar in southern Afghanistan, hoping to avoid possible bombings, and that its military was entrenching itself outside Kabul. The Taliban's leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, called on rich Muslims worldwide to give money to the regime.

In Washington, counterterrorism legislation made gains in the House and Senate despite concerns that the bills could infringe on civil liberties.

The House Judiciary Committee passed a scaled-back version of the president's proposal to fight terrorism, with the aim of bringing it to the House floor early next week.

In the Senate, one day after Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft complained that Judiciary Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) was taking too long drafting an anti-terrorism bill, Democratic leaders and the Bush administration reached agreement on a package of new police powers.

The bills being considered in the House and Senate would give federal law-enforcement officials greater ability to wiretap telephones, monitor suspected terrorists on the Internet and share intelligence information with other agencies.

Jill Zuckman of the Tribune's Washington bureau and Tribune news services contributed to this report.

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