Bush to lean on his friends in the Gulf

The Coalition
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The pivotal encounter for George Bush as he sets about coalition-building could well be with Prince Saud Faisal, the Foreign Minister of Saudi Arabia, America's key ally in the Gulf and the country where several of the hijackers are believed to have been born. Two are said to have been sons of a senior Saudi diplomat who served in Washington, although Riyadh denies this.

The Saudis have pledged to co-operate, but constrained by fears of fundamentalists at home and worries that the country that is home to Islam's most sacred shrines might appear to be an American poodle.

"I expect Minister Saud will be forthcoming," said Colin Powell, the US Secretary of State, before a meeting with Prince Saud today, and US officials are counting on the sheer scale of the atrocity to persuade Riyadh to drop its inhibitions. But persuasion may not be that easy, given the lack of Saudi help in investigating terrorist killings of American personnel in Saudi Arabia in 1995 and 1996. Those killings were thought to be the work of Islamic fundamentalists.

If the Saudis are not more helpful this time, America will face a colossal dilemma – finding itself under strong public opinion pressure to ostracise a state that houses forces vital for the containment of Iraqand that is the biggest source of US oil imports.

Other moderate Arab states, including Egypt, are deeply nervous about their domestic Islamic movements. These countries are diplomatically supportive but have made clear they want America's retaliation to be based on solid proof and to be precisely directed, rather than inflict random suffering on the Afghan people, which would fan anti-American feelings.

As the stream of visitors to Washington continues, complete secrecy has descended on America's military planning. Pakistan's assistance seems to have been agreed. But of Afghanistan's other neighbours, Iran is most unlikely to permit US overflights or bases. America has few ties with Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, former Soviet republics in central Asia that have Islamic fundamentalist movements of their own.

Senior officials are raising the prospect of US military casualties, implying that ground forces will be used. General Joseph Ralston, Nato's supreme commander in Europe, is the latest to prepare opinion for a long haul. Casualties were unavoidable, he said. "People shouldn't expect a single strike and that would be the end of the problem. This is a sustained effort over a long period by the entire international community."

Among countries expressing willingness to make a military contribution are Nato members such as Britain, the closest US ally, Italy and Spain. Australia is also ready to help.

* The UN General Assembly delayed indefinitely its annual debate of world leaders that had been set to begin next week.