New Bin Laden tapes mar Bush's Asia tour

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The Independent Online

An edgy George Bush whisked through south-east Asia this weekend offering increased military aid to help friendly governments combat the threat of terrorism, even as two new tapes purporting to be from Osama bin Laden called for a holy war on US forces in Iraq.

In the tapes, broadcast by al-Jazeera, the al-Qa'ida leader threatens more suicide attacks in the US as well as Britain and other American allies, and praises resistance groups fighting the American "crusaders" in Iraq.

"You should carry out jihad [holy war] ... You should know that this war is a new crusade against the Islamic world and is a fateful war for the whole [Muslim] nation," one tape said. Muslims and Iraqis were told to "beware of working with the American forces ... Whoever works with them is an infidel."

Mr Bush's spokesman, Scott McClennan said in Bangkok that the tapes were a reminder the "war on terror" continued, "and that's why we are taking the fight to the killers".

The President received some modest promises from his Asian hosts of financial support and troop commitments to bolster the US presence in Iraq. But on a trip whose whirlwind pace was dictated by extraordinary security concerns and the unmistake- able whiff of popular hostility towards the US, his achievements risked being overshad- owed by a succession of diplomatic embarrassments and the polite refusal of his hosts to accommodate US concerns about transpacific trade and the continuing nuclear tensions with North Korea.

Mr Bush spent barely eight hours in the Philippines yesterday, cramming in an address to parliament, a private meeting with President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and a state dinner before flying on to Thailand for the Apec regional economic summit.

Despite efforts by the US Secret Service to keep protesters at bay, a group of about 3,000 people lining the route from the presidential palace of the House of Representatives burned five US flags and an effigy of Mr Bush as the official motorcade was passing.

Undaunted, the President told a joint session of the Philippines Congress: "The terrorists will continue their missions of murder and suicide until they are stopped. And we will stop them." Having already promised Manila some $340m (£200m) in military aid this year, he pledged to increase the co-operation further - despite concerns by some critics that the money is simply fuelling corruption and that some equipment is ending up in the hands of Abu Sayyaf, the very group the US and Philippines governments want to see defeated. Mr Bush was expected to announce a similar increase in military aid to Thailand.

In return, the Philippines has sent about 100 soldiers, police and health workers to Iraq. South Korea yesterday announced it would contribute $200m (£120m) to Iraq over the next four years, and Japan has promised some form of assistance, without specifying exactly what.

The Asian leaders have greeted Mr Bush a bit like an unloved distant relative, their hospitality tinged with faint embarrassment. The Japanese were upset after Condoleezza Rice, the National Security Adviser, called Mr Bush's trip a "layover", or stopover, and became even more upset when a presidential spokes- man used the word again.

In Australia, the last stop on the six-country tour, the Prime Minister, John Howard, bridled at Mr Bush's characterisation of him as the US "sheriff" in south-east Asia, making clear he has no intention of being seen as a White House stooge.

Trouble of a different kind awaits Mr Bush in Malaysia, where the Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad, guaranteed embarrassment with a tirade on Friday in which he claimed that Jews "rule the world by proxy" and suggested Muslims should use their superior numbers to resist them. Even before it started, one US official characterised Mr Bush's tour as "the trip from al-Qa'ida hell". At home, official nervousness over the possibility of new attacks was heightened when boxcutter knives and putty made to look like plastic explosive were discovered in the toilet of a Southwest Airlines jet.