Bush Gives Taliban Another Chance
By RON FOURNIER
.c The Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) - President Bush offered the Taliban a chance to stop America's punishing assaults on Afghanistan by turning over suspected terror mastermind Osama bin Laden. ``Cough him up,'' the president said.
Bush also put Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, whom the United States has long considered a sponsor of terrorism, on notice: ``We're watching him carefully.''
In the first prime-time news conference of his presidency, Bush gave a progress report Thursday night on the government's response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
He said ``it might take a year or two'' to unravel the terrorist network behind the attack but asserted the five-day bombardment in Afghanistan already had put bin Laden's al-Qaida network on the run.
The president said he did not know whether bin Laden was dead or alive, but it mattered little: ``I want him brought to justice.''
Bin Laden is widely believed to be behind the attacks by four hijacked airliners that killed more than 5,000 people in New York, at the Pentagon and in a field in Pennsylvania.
The president, at times forceful, emotional and humorous, looked confidently beyond his war with Afghanistan's Taliban regime and suggested that the United Nations help rebuild the Central Asian country. He urged patience, telling Americans he was ``slowly, but surely'' tightening the noose around al-Qaida.
``This particular battlefront will last as long as it takes to bring al-Qaida to justice. It may happen tomorrow; it may happen a month from now; it may take a year or two. But we will prevail,'' said Bush, who criticized open-ended military missions as a presidential candidate.
As U.S. bombs increasingly targeted Taliban troops, Bush held out a carrot to the Taliban rulers harboring bin Laden.
``If you cough him up, and his people today ... we'll reconsider what we're doing to your country. You still have a second chance. Bring him in. And bring his leaders and lieutenants and other thugs and criminals with him,'' Bush said.
The president said an FBI warning issued earlier in the day was the result of a ``general threat'' of possible future terrorist acts the government had received. ``I hope it's the last, but given the attitude of the evildoers it may not be,'' he said.
The possible threats ranged from diplomatic sites overseas to possible truck bombs in the United States, a U.S. intelligence official said later, speaking on condition of anonymity.
At the same time, Bush sought to reassure Americans the government was doing all it could to make them safe. The president said he wouldn't hesitate to close buildings or facilities if there was credible evidence of an attack, and he urged Americans to report anything suspicious to law enforcement authorities.
Above all, he said, don't let fear prevail.
``Their intention was to frighten (Americans) to the point where our nation would not act. Their intention was to so frighten our government that we wouldn't seek justice; that somehow we would cower in the face of their threats and not respond, abroad or at home,'' Bush said.
Despite Russia's cooperation in the war on terrorism, Bush said the attacks made him all the more in favor of building an anti-missile shield opposed by Moscow. When he meets Russian President Vladimir Putin later this month, Bush said he would raise the possibility of a hostile nation developing deadly missiles that can reach either country.
``Wouldn't it be in our nation's advantage to be able to shoot it down?'' he said, once again calling the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty outdated.
The Senate by a wide margin voted to give police broad new wiretapping authority to pursue suspected terrorists and to increase the federal role in security at airports and on airliners - two major Bush administration initiatives.
The government said about $24 million in assets of individuals and groups believed to be bankrolling terrorists has been frozen. Additional names were expected to be added to the list Friday, government officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
At his news conference, Bush was asked whether he envisioned expanding military action beyond Afghanistan to Iraq or Syria. He said the United States would ``bring to justice'' nations that harbor terrorists. He said the administration already had had success rooting members of bin Laden's al-Qaida network from nations other than Afghanistan - a reference, aides said later, to terrorist arrests in France and Germany, among others places.
``We're looking for al-Qaida cells around the world,'' Bush said, and if the United States finds any, it will pursue them.
Bush said Syria, a nation often linked with terrorist groups, had expressed a desire to help with the anti-terror coalition. ``We'll give them an opportunity to do so.'' He did not give specifics on the type of assistance Syria offered, but said he took it seriously.
He also urged American children to donate dollar bills to help impoverished Afghanistan youngsters. The money, which he asked to be mailed to the White House, will symbolize the nation's compassion and give children something to do in reaction to the strikes, aides said.