Rumsfeld in Egypt on third leg of trip
MUSCAT, Oman (CNN) -- U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld arrived in Egypt on Thursday, the third stop on a trip to confer with allies in the Middle East and Central Asia in the battle against international terror.
Egypt is a close U.S. ally in the region. The U.S. military holds annual joint training exercises there, known as Operation Bright Star, and for that reason U.S. officials say they do not anticipate any operational problems.
Egypt is also important because of its control of the Suez Canal, which could provide U.S. aircraft carriers convenient passage from southwest Asia to the Mediterranean "without going around the horn" of Africa, according to a U.S. official.
"It is very important in terms of the facilities (it has) available," said one senior administration official.
Before Rumsfeld arrived, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said Thursday that Egypt is committed to fighting terrorism but will not be sending troops to participate in any military action. "We do not participate with troops anywhere because the Egyptian army is there to defend Egyptian lands," Mubarak said on national television.
'Tending' to the coalition
Much of Rumsfeld's mission involves, in the words of one senior administration source, "gardening" or "tending" to the concerns of a variety of countries necessary to the U.S. coalition.
In the past several weeks leaders from the Middle East and Central Asia have told the Bush administration they need to be convinced that any U.S. military action will not be a "flash in the pan," said one senior US official involved in such meetings.
This official pointed out the last memory for Central Asian states of U.S. involvement in their region was the 1998 cruise missile attacks ordered by the Clinton administration against suspected terrorist training camps in Afghanistan.
Rumsfeld's message is that it is "safe to be associated" with the United States because the Bush administration will be there for the long term.
In Oman, Saudi Arabia's neighbor to the south, officials said Rumsfeld discussed the possible staging of U.S. aircraft at Oman's air bases.
On Wednesday, the defense secretary held talks with Defense Minister Prince Sultan in the Saudi capital of Riyadh and also met Crown Prince Abdullah and King Fahd when he visited Saudi Arabia,
From all indications, the Saudi stop was aimed at bolstering the U.S.-Saudi Arabian relationship. Officials continue to maintain that despite public statements to the contrary, the United States has no doubt that if it wants to fly military missions out of Prince Sultan Air Base, it will be able to do so.
Rumsfeld's last stop will be in the Central Asian nation of Uzbekistan. Here, he will review U.S. plans to use Uzbekistan as a staging ground for Special Operation forces as well as other U.S. troops necessary to conduct "rapid extraction" missions in Afghanistan and provide security for U.S. Air Force fighters.
In a surprising admission, a senior administration source told CNN that the Uzbek government has been privately urging the United States to set up and maintain military bases in Uzbekistan even after any Afghan mission is over. The purpose is to protect the former Soviet republic from Russia as well as any terrorists who may flee across the border.
Meeting with former Afghan king
On a separate diplomatic track, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell sent a senior adviser, Richard Haass, to Europe this week to meet with Mohammed Zahir Shah, the deposed Afghan king living in Rome
Several senior administration sources tell CNN that Haass will outline a "future's program" possible for Afghanistan if the Taliban regime ends.
"It hasn't aired yet. It hasn't been blessed in the international community," said one senior official.
President Bush has said the United States is not interested in "nation building" and in fact, officials familiar with Haass' presentation say he is not looking to influence who might be in a future Afghan government.
However, these officials say, Haass will tell the deposed king that any new government needs to be friendly to Pakistan. In that case, officials say, the United States will be ready to provide plenty of humanitarian and financial aid to help "reconstruct" Afghanistan and will also work to get an international peacekeeping force, one that would be predominantly Muslim, into Afghanistan to help keep the peace.
U.S. officials say they do not view the former king as a future ruler of Afghanistan, but rather as a "unifying figure" -- a "symbol of happier times" around which the Afghan diaspora might rally.
Details also are emerging as to what the United States has requested from its NATO allies following Tuesday's endorsement by NATO members of possible U.S. military action against Islamic militant Osama bin Laden, his al Qaeda network and the Taliban.
Two senior administration sources tell CNN that requests for ships, troops, planes, staging areas, overflight rights and launching rights have been made.
One source said "English-speaking" allies like Great Britain and Australia have already volunteered troops.
-- CNN State Department Correspondent Andrea Koppel contributed to this report
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