Anthrax attacks on Americans represent a second wave of terror, President Bush said Saturday, while on Arab television the man believed responsible for the first wave made a taped appearance denouncing the U.S. anti-terrorism campaign in Afghanistan.
U.S. bombers pounded Taliban and Al Qaeda positions in northern Afghanistan in the 28th day of air strikes on the Central Asian country. Amid worsening weather, U.S.-backed local forces reported defections from the ranks of the enemy Taliban, the Islamist party that runs Afghanistan. Officials in Tajikistan, meanwhile, told Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld they were considering offering the U.S. access to their air bases.
Appearing at times winded and fatigued, alleged terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden condemned the U.S. bombing campaign in Afghanistan in a videotaped statement broadcast Saturday on Arab television.
"The whole West is supporting this unjust, ferocious campaign," bin Laden said. "No evidence proves that what happened in America [is related to] the people of Afghanistan." Arab leaders who have joined the United Nations in supporting the U.S. campaign "have renounced the message of Mohammed," bin Laden said.
Directly challenging Bush's assertion that the United States is waging a war on terrorism, not on Islam, bin Laden said Muslims must oppose "the oppressive, tyrannical and arrogant America" in the global struggle.
"In essence, this is a religious war," he said.
Later, Christopher Ross, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria and Algeria who now is an adviser to the State Department, appeared on Al Jazeera television, which had broadcast the bin Laden comments, and picked apart the Saudi exile's statements.
Speaking in classic Arabic for 15 minutes, Ross countered each of bin Laden's claims. "The war is not against Islam," Ross said, "it is against the perpetrators of these crimes."
Bush, spending the weekend at the presidential retreat in Camp David, Md., acknowledged in his weekly radio address that the initial assessments of the anthrax threat were wrong.
"Originally experts believed the anthrax spores could not escape from sealed envelopes. We now know differently," Bush said. Calling the anthrax outbreak "a second wave of terrorist attacks," Bush said such biological warfare is unprecedented and that officials have had to develop responses quickly.
Bush said investigators still do not know whether the source of the anthrax attacks is domestic or foreign.
Four Americans have died of inhalation anthrax and at least 13 suffer illness from anthrax spores in the skin or breathed into the lungs. Bush sought to deliver a calming message, saying the chances of getting the disease are infinitesimal and that effective treatments are readily available.
"But still, people should take appropriate precautions," Bush said. "Look carefully at your mail before opening it. Tell your doctor if you believe you may have been exposed to anthrax."
New anthrax test
The Mayo Clinic is expected to announce Monday that it has designed a DNA test that significantly reduces the time it takes to detect the anthrax bacteria. The clinic, based in Rochester, Minn., stepped up its work developing tests for biological agents after the anthrax outbreak of recent weeks.
The intensifying U.S. military campaign seeks to dismantle the Taliban regime and thereby deprive bin Laden's Al Qaeda organization of its haven for planning attacks. U.S. officials warn against hopes of a quick end to the fighting.
The challenge facing the U.S. campaign is further complicated by several factors: the difficulty of getting supplies to or even near landlocked Afghanistan; the mountainous, now snowy terrain; a jumbled political situation in which numerous ethnic groups vie for supremacy; and the inability of opposition groups to make significant inroads into Taliban territory.
On Saturday, the Pentagon denied Taliban claims to have killed at least 50 Americans in helicopter and airplane downings. The Pentagon also said U.S. forces rescued an ailing special operations serviceman Saturday under cover of darkness in northern Afghanistan. The rescue came on the second try, after a U.S. Special Forces helicopter was forced down by bad weather late Friday. All on board, including four injured crew members, were safely evacuated.
An unarmed $3.2 million Air Force RQ-1B Predator unmanned aircraft also apparently crashed because of severe weather, the Pentagon said, disputing a Taliban claim that the aircraft had been shot down.
As the Pentagon seeks to provide military supplies to anti-Taliban forces in northern Afghanistan, Rumsfeld arrived Saturday in Tajikistan seeking to persuade the Muslim nation to expand its support for the U.S. campaign beyond granting overflight rights.
Tajik President Emomali Rakhmonov agreed in an hourlong meeting with Rumsfeld to form a U.S.-Tajik assessment team to examine the suitability of air bases along Afghanistan's northern border for U.S. military planes.
"The experts should look at what Tajikistan can offer America and what it cannot," Tajik Foreign Minister Talbak Nazarov told reporters. The Pentagon is interested in an airport in Kulyab, about 60 miles from the Afghan border. "First we have to look at the state of the Kulyab airport," Nazarov said.
Asked whether there was a deal on military cooperation with Tajikistan, Rumsfeld said there was not. He then traveled to neighboring Uzbekistan. Later in his four-day trip, which began in Russia, Rumsfeld will visit Pakistan and India.
Air bases play crucial role
Air bases are critical to the U.S. campaign because virtually every bullet, bomb and soldier is coming by air.
The fragile supply lines linking the U.S. to fighters in the loosely organized Northern Alliance are being further stressed by the onslaught of Afghanistan's harsh winter weather.
In a taste of what is to come, the season's first snowfall has paralyzed truck traffic over the Hindu Kush mountains, a 16,000-foot barrier separating the front lines near Kabul from rear supply centers in Tajikistan. A single truck, bogged down on the only road link over the craggy range, has held up all traffic for two days. Opposition soldiers are said to be crossing the high passes, where snow depths can reach 20 feet, on horseback.
One faction of the Northern Alliance, also called the United Front, said Saturday that 800 Taliban soldiers defected to the anti-Taliban forces under the command of Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum. The defection, which could not be independently confirmed, reportedly took place at a hamlet called Aq Kubruk, about 50 miles south of Mazar-e Sharif, the key northern Afghanistan crossroads city that has been a focus of fighting for weeks.
"This is part of several positive changes you will be seeing in the near future," said Mohammad Nasir, a spokesman for the United Front. "We are entering a new phase of the war."
There has been speculation for days that the Northern Alliance is about to launch a major offensive aimed at capturing Mazar-e Sharif and Kabul, but U.S. officials say there is little coordination among the anti-Taliban factions, and the U.S. has no control over the timing of opposition offensives.
Whatever the rate of progress, the military campaign is expensive, according to a new estimate by a Washington-based think tank.
The Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments said that based on "a preliminary rough estimate," the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan has cost $400 million to $800 million so far. If it continues on about the same scale, the Pentagon could incur extra costs of $500 million to $1 billion a month. Additional military patrols in the United States and the call-up of reserve forces for homeland protection is costing $100 million to several hundred million per month, the center reported.
Tribune foreign correspondent Paul Salopek in Afghanistan, Tribune staff reporters John Diamond and Mickey Ciokajlo in Washington and tribune staff reports contributed to this report.