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U.S. talks diplomacy, Blair talks action

By Ian Christopher McCaleb
CNN Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The United States broadened diplomatic efforts in the Middle East and Central Asia Tuesday, dispatching its secretary of defense to the region, while the leader of the nation's closest ally threatened military action if Afghanistan's Taliban do not accede to U.S. demands.

In Washington, administration officials spoke softly, dispatching Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld on an international mission late Tuesday night.

In Great Britain, British Prime Minister Tony Blair promised to use a big stick -- military force -- if the Taliban do not surrender Osama bin Laden, the No. 1 suspect in the September 11 terrorist attacks.

At the same time, the architect of a Middle East peace plan said the recent terrorism events have created a new incentive to settle tensions between Israelis and Palestinians. The United States presented evidence to the NATO alliance and Pakistan of bin Laden network al Qaeda's alleged involvement in the attacks last month, while a high-ranking Indian official directed some harsh words at its neighbor, Pakistan.

And another aircraft carrier moved toward the Middle East and South Asia.

'Trap around the regime'

Blair, speaking to a gathering of the Labor Party in Brighton, England, warned the Taliban that they better hand over al Qaeda founder bin Laden and his lieutenants or face crippling strikes to their infrastructure and sparsely equipped military.

The evidence the United States has gathered against bin Laden is compelling, Blair said.

"Bin Laden and his people organized this atrocity," Blair said in a long speech that sounded a call to arms to Britons just as Bush's address to Congress nearly two weeks ago rallied Americans. "The Taliban aid and abet him. He will not desist from further acts of terror. They will not stop helping him. We will put a trap around the regime."

Blair characterized the Taliban as oppressive a regime as the world has ever seen -- responsible for some 90 percent of the heroin smuggled into the United Kingdom and the deaths of scores of British citizens killed in the destruction of World Trade Center's twin towers last month, he said.

"I say to the Taliban: Surrender the terrorists, or surrender power," Blair warned. "That is your choice."

In Washington, White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said the Bush administration appreciated Blair's tough talk. He knew of no coordination between U.S. and British officials before the prime minister's address that could have influenced Blair's speech, Fleischer said.

"It is the right of everybody to speak as they see fit," Fleischer said. "The United States welcomes the comments … The prime minister speaks for himself and his nation."

Rumsfeld departs

Other Bush administration officials, meanwhile, reached out to the Middle East and Asia, where the support of moderate Arab states could make or break an international coalition against global terrorism.

Rumsfeld left Tuesday night from Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland, on a trip that will include stops in Saudi Arabia, Oman, Egypt and Uzbekistan.

Rumsfeld planned to hold talks with political and military leaders in the region before returning this weekend, said Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke. "We do want to have consultations about the defense arrangements," she said.

Earlier Tuesday, Rumsfeld said he was overdue for a visit to the Middle East and Asia, "given all the things that are going on over there."

Rumsfeld also hinted that the United States could maintain decent contacts throughout the Middle East, and with Muslim countries in general, as it did when it built the 1991 Gulf War coalition.

"Well, I think it is important to emphasize… that the United States and our coalition partners went into a Muslim country in Kuwait and threw the Iraqis out," he said on CBS Tuesday morning.

The White House tried to play down the importance of Rumsfeld's trip, even when reporters asked why the defense secretary, rather than Secretary of State Colin Powell, had been given such a mission.

"Because he is the appropriate person to go," Fleischer replied.

Palestinian statehood

Fleischer also sought to "de-link" President Bush's declaration Tuesday morning that the United States has an interest in seeing the eventual foundation of a Palestinian state.

Earlier that day, the president had told reporters that Israel's safety must be assured if the Palestinians are ever to have their own nation. "You know, the idea of a Palestinian state has always been part of a vision, so long as the right for Israel to exist is respected," Bush said.

Fleischer deflected a persistent question: Was talk of Palestinian statehood an attempt to quell passions in the Middle East, a major regional flashpoint, before the United States mounted military action in Afghanistan?

"The president said it because it's the logical conclusion of the vision that the president talked about this morning at the end of the negotiated peace process," Fleischer said.

Powell, who followed Fleischer in the briefing, echoed the press secretary's remarks. He was accompanied by Indian Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh, with whom he had met earlier that day.

"We have had a (Middle East) plan since the administration came into office in January," he said. "The events of September 11 don't really play into this."

Former Maine Sen. George Mitchell, the author of a report that lays the framework for peace in the Middle East, applauded the administration's timing. The terrorist attacks have put the issue of Middle Eastern peace in a new light and given it a new urgency, he told CNN Tuesday.

"The September 11 tragedy may have created a new dynamic in the Middle East, and I think it's appropriate and timely for the president and secretary of state to try and act on that basis," he said. "I think that the overriding imperative is to end the violence and resume security cooperation, because life has become unbearable for people in both societies."

India: Pakistan abetting Taliban

Powell's meeting with India's foreign minister held political and military implications, and highlighted the delicate dance the United States must perform in South Asia.

Pakistan, the only nation that still has diplomatic ties with the Taliban, has pledged to support a U.S. coalition, despite dissent from some Pakistanis. The nation on Tuesday received a cache of evidence that U.S. officials say draws a link between bin Laden and the September 11 attacks.

Pakistan also is at odds with India, its neighbor to the east -- whose chief diplomat was a guest in Washington Tuesday.

India insists that all South Asia violence sparked by Islamic militants is related, and has accused Pakistan of encouraging terrorism in India's Kashmir region -- a car bomb there Tuesday claimed 35 lives. It also claims the Taliban have flourished in Afghanistan with Pakistan's help.

"If the leadership of Pakistan … were to abandon the past of violence and of terrorism and join the rest of the international community in its fight against this evil, it would be a development that India would welcome very much," Singh said in Washington.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk steamed from Japan toward the Arabian Sea, the fourth carrier to be deployed to the region.

The U.S. now has some 30,000 combat and support personnel dispatched throughout the region.


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