President George Bush ordered 100 fighters, bombers and other aircraft to move towards the Middle East last night in the first clear sign that America is preparing to launch retaliatory strikes for last week's terror attacks.
Donald Rumsfeld, the Defence Secretary, signed the order yesterday for an initial deployment. Experts said the deployment would almost certainly include Special Forces that could be positioned inside Afghanistan, in addition to the array of warplanes.
A Pentagon spokesman said: "The United States is repositioning some of its military forces where required to prepare for and support the President's campaign against terrorism and to support efforts to identify, locate and hold accountable terrorist and those who support and harbour them." The deployment, Operation Infinite Justice, came amid signs that Mr Bush has become increasingly frustrated with the mixed messages being delivered from the Taliban, the regime harbouring Osama bin Laden, the prime suspect.
Washington bluntly told the Taliban regime "actions and not negotiations" were needed, as it responded to a statement from Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban's reclusive leader, in which he said he was ready to hold talks with America.
With the strike force – including F-15E attack jets, F-16 fighters, B1 bombers and refuelling aircraft – making its way to the Middle East, Mr Bush will meet Tony Blair today and deliver to him what amounts to a timetable for the much- anticipated military strikes. At the same time, Richard Armitage, the US Deputy Secretary of State, will brief Nato on America's three-pronged plans involving diplomatic, financial and military action.
While Mr Bush continues to consider a wide range of military options, US officials will arrive in Pakistan later this week to discuss ground support requirements for a strike inside Afghanistan. General Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's military leader, made a television broadcast last night explaining to his 140 million people why he was backing the imminent action. Mr Bush has already consulted Mr Blair on the precise timing of those strikes and there is a growing belief in London that operations could start within a week.
As the war clouds gathered and the Taliban sought to play for time, the President told reporters at the White House: "I would strongly urge the Taliban to turn over the al-Qa'ida organisers who hide in their country. We're on the case. We're gathering as much evidence as we possibly can to be able to make our case to the world. Anybody who harbours terrorists needs to fear the United States and the rest of the freedom-loving world.''
Mr Bush and his military advisers have been considering a full range of options on how to respond to last week's attacks in New York and Washington, which resulted in the deaths of close to 6,000 people. While most observers believe the response will involve aerial attacks and the insertion of Special Forces, Mr Bush is becoming aware of the need to build a diplomatic coalition to support such military action.
Central to this coalition is the Prime Minister, who has already said he is prepared for British forces to play a role in the military response. Mr Blair is due to arrive in New York later today where he will see at first hand the devastation wreaked when two hijacked airliners were flown into the World Trade Centre. Up to 250 Britons are believed to be among the dead. He is expected to meet bereaved relatives.
Mr Blair will have a private dinner at the White House with Mr Bush to discuss the President's efforts to forge his "new war" against terrorism.
America will ask its European allies to provide "tangible assistance" to the military response, although the United States will take the lead in co-ordinating the action. British officials admit there is a range of views among EU members and that some countries who "want to find a reason" not to take part will find one.
To try to counter this, the US Deputy Secretary of State's visit to Nato headquarters today is designed to strengthen the mood of coalition and provide the evidence of Mr bin Laden's involvement.
Nato took the unprecedented step last week of invoking its Cold War-era mutual defence clause, declaring that if the attack on America was found to have come from abroad it would be treated as an attack on the entire alliance. Mr Armitage will report to the Nato council on the US strategy of diplomatic pressure, cutting off sources of funding for suspected terrorist networks and the military options.
A Nato official said that at a meeting yesterday America had already given the allies a brief update, saying there were "clear indications pointing in the direction of one suspect", a reference to Mr bin Laden. He continues to be considered a guest by the Taliban. Mullah Omar was quoted yesterday by the Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press as saying: "We have not tried to create problems with America. We have had several talks with the present and the past American governments and we are ready for [further] talks."
He went on: "The enemies of this country look on the Islamic system as a thorn in their eye and they seek different excuses to finish it off. Osama bin Laden is one of these."
The comments, made at a gathering of 1,000 Islamic clerics that again postponed making a decision on the fate of Mr bin Laden, are being treated by Washington as little more than time wasting and are doing nothing to slow preparations for a military strike. Ari Fleischer, a White House spokesman, said Mr Bush wanted the Taliban to "take the actions necessary to no longer harbour terrorists – whatever form that takes".
Meanwhile in Detroit, the FBI said agents had arrested three Arabs allegedly found with false identity papers and notes at a US air base in Turkey and a Jordanian airport.Reuse content