Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

'U.S. CALLED OFF FIRST ATTACKS YESTERDAY'; Saudi Support 'Went Cool' Say Officials THE TERRORIST CRISIS

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

'U.S. CALLED OFF FIRST ATTACKS YESTERDAY'; Saudi Support 'Went Cool' Say Officials THE TERRORIST CRISIS

Article excerpt

Byline: JEREMY CAMPBELL

THE United States and Britain yesterday called off military strikes against terrorist targets in Afghanistan at the last minute.

Washington officials say today that a severe attack of last-minute cold feet by some key Arab members of the coalition caused President Bush to postpone the operation.

The waverers are Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan and Oman, and US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is embarking on an urgent mission today to strengthen nerves in these countries.

Prime Minister Tony Blair is also about to undertake a hasty visit to the region. Saudi Arabia's support is especially vital, because Allied aircraft and commanders need its base facilities.

Two senior US officials have told reporters that until yesterday the Saudis were firm in their offer to provide assistance for strikes, including use of a state-of-the-art command centre at the Prince Royal Sultan Air Force Base.

Then the situation changed. One US official told Knight Newspapers: "That is no longer true. We fear there is something deeper here."

Mr Rumsfeld's trip to the Middle East is intended to mend these unexpected ruptures.

Downing Street, meanwhile, confirmed Mr Blair will be departing on a mission tomorrow but refused, on security grounds, to be drawn on any of the detail.

Amid clear unease over the advance leaks of the trip, a spokesman dismissed all reports as "speculation" maintaining that some of the suggested calling points for the Prime Minister were simply wrong.

Mr Rumsfeld's tour, which includes Saudi Arabia, Oman, Egypt and Uzbekistan, is being compared to the stage-setting trip made by Dick Cheney, then Defence Secretary, to the Gulf just before the start of Desert Storm.

This time there is more at stake.

Near the top of Mr Rumsfeld's list of priorities is to talk his way to an agreement with Uzbekistan, on the northern border of Afghanistan, to use the country as a staging area for the attack. …

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