U.S. military launches 'Infinite Justice' mission
- Jets and ships head out as buildup begins - Taliban maintains hard line on bin Laden - More cuts at airlines, layoffs near 100,000
By JOHN STACKHOUSE, The Globe and Mail
With reports from AP and Reuters
Thursday, September 19, 2001
The United States began a large military buildup in the Persian Gulf yesterday -- code named Operation Infinite Justice -- as the threat of retaliation against countries accused of harbouring terrorists continues to grow.
The Pentagon ordered more than 100 warplanes to the region, suggesting that more will soon follow as it begins its open-ended campaign to root out terrorist groups in what could prove to be dozens of countries.
The F-15 and F-16 fighter jets are believed to be on their way to so-called forward bases in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Kuwait, from where they could strike either Iraq or Afghanistan. The two countries have been mentioned by U.S. officials as havens for anti-American terrorists. More aircraft, including B-1 bombers and surveillance planes, are likely to follow, reports say.
An aircraft carrier and a dozen other warships and submarines also left Norfolk, Va., yesterday for what was previously scheduled as a mission in the Mediterranean. Officials would not say whether orders had changed.
Military pressure is ratcheting up as Afghanistan's ruling Taliban regime continues to refuse U.S. and United Nations demands for the handover of suspected terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden. Taliban leaders said they are still awaiting proof that Mr. bin Laden or any other member of his al-Qaeda network of militant groups was involved in last week's terrorist attacks.
An offer of talks met a swift rebuff.
"I would strongly urge the Taliban to hand over the al-Qaeda organizers who hide in their country," U.S. President George W. Bush said. He is scheduled to address Congress and the American people tonight.
"It's time for action, not negotiations," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer added.
Mr. Bush warned again that the United States is entering a long campaign against terrorism, but that swift action could be taken against those believed to be responsible for last week's terrorist attacks.
"The first objective is to bring people to justice," he said, repeating his belief that last week's attacks were "an act of war."
Americans also remained under a barrage of bad economic news. Share prices on the New York Stock Exchange fell sharply, but a late-afternoon rally tempered the selloff.
Airline and aeronautic companies continued to announce massive layoffs. American Airlines, which lost two airplanes in the terrorist attacks, said it will cut 20,000 jobs, pushing job losses in the industry to almost 100,000. Company chairman and chief executive Don Carty, who is Canadian, said he had "declared a state of emergency" with the current state of affairs putting his company's "very survival" into question.
Delta Airlines chairman Leo Mullin, representing the industry, appealed for $17-billion (U.S.) in federal assistance, warning that "almost no airline is strong enough to survive for long facing the upcoming challenges."
Mr. Bush conceded that his country has hit "tough times," but said only that he will ask Congress for $5-billion in immediate aid, plus help with the airlines' insurance liability.
"I've still got faith in our economy, that we'll recover," he said.
But he also continued to talk tough on Afghanistan, and praised Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf for declaring his support.
The prospects for a U.S. attack grew as Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar said the United States was unfairly targeting Mr. bin Laden. The reclusive mullah sent a written speech to 600 Islamic clerics at an urgent meeting in Kabul, stressing his belief in Mr. bin Laden's innocence as they weigh whether to give him up.
Mr. bin Laden has denied involvement, Mr. Omar said in his speech, which was read to delegates. It is unfortunate that America does not listen to us and levels all sorts of charges and threatens military action, he said.
Although U.S. air strikes could come at any time, the council of clerics adjourned yesterday without any agreement. It was due to meet again this morning in an effort to reach consensus.
In Pakistan, Western nations began to evacuate diplomatic missions of non-essential staff and families of diplomats as General Musharraf told a nationwide television audience to brace for a decisive moment in his nation's history. He said he has agreed to support U.S. military action in the region because the alternative was to risk "our very existence."
"Pakistan comes first," he said, explaining that he had done everything he could, yet failed to win some sort of agreement between the Taliban and Washington.
While the United States began to amass its forces in the region, White House officials played down the focus on conventional warfare, saying they were contemplating an entirely new form of attack.
"This is also a war of will and mind," said National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, who drew a picture of the looming campaign that looked more like a spy game than a military assault. She said intelligence, financial data and travel restrictions will be as important as the fighter jets on their way to the Persian Gulf.
"This is not a war against just one country or just one person," U.S. deputy defence secretary Paul Wolfowitz said. Earlier, his boss, Donald Rumsfeld, said Mr. bin Laden and his associates have activities in 50 or 60 countries, including the United States.
The Times of London reported that Washington and London are discussing plans for a 10-year campaign called Operation Noble Eagle, which would aim to eliminate hostile networks and cells but avoid land invasions.
But allies in Europe and the Arab world continued to express concerns that even aerial strikes against a small country such as Afghanistan would cause huge civilian losses and possibly enrage Muslims around the world.
"We can't fight terrorism by becoming vengeful," Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said in Washington, where he met with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell.
He said Saudi Arabia, which stripped Mr. bin Laden of his citizenship in 1994 after he allegedly launched attacks on the government there, will support any U.S. action. But he urged caution.
"We can fight terrorism by being clear-headed to identify the guilty and pursue them mercilessly until we bring them to justice," he said.
French President Jacques Chirac, who met Tuesday evening with Mr. Bush, also said the United States should move ahead cautiously, suggesting the terrorists had laid a trap in which the United States would be seen as striking back at Muslims.
Mr. Bush said he understands the concerns and expects some allies to join a U.S.-led coalition at different stages of the campaign, contributing in different ways. He said some countries might help by providing covert military support or secret information on suspected terrorist groups, while others could contribute conventional forces.
Mr. Bush suggested that the coalition against terrorism could help bring peace to troubled regions. He pointed to both the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Indian-Pakistani conflict in Kashmir as two disputes that could ease as a result of the U.S-led campaign.