Washington President Bush warned that Osama bin Laden is seeking chemical, biological and nuclear weapons to pursue "mad global ambitions." To stop him, America needs action from its allies, not merely sympathy, the president said Tuesday.
"This is an evil man that we're dealing with, and I wouldn't put it past him to develop evil weapons to try to harm civilization as we know it," Bush said after an Oval Office meeting with French President Jacques Chirac.
Bush's remarks were intended to heighten the urgency of the showdown with bin Laden, his al-Qaida network and the Taliban regime harboring them in Afghanistan. By underscoring what's at stake, Bush sought to strengthen the resolve of allies and steel Americans for a long war with the prospect of many casualties.
The president also addressed leaders from Central and Eastern Europe, warning that al-Qaida terrorists operate in more than 60 countries. "They're seeking chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. Given the means, our enemies would be a threat to every nation and, eventually, to civilization itself."
The presidential events opened a 10-day public relations offensive, including meetings all week with world leaders, an address in Atlanta on the nation's defenses, a United Nations speech this weekend and a summit next week with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Bush meets today at the White House with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the staunchest U.S. ally against terrorism.
Polls show deep support for the president along with some concerns about the war in Afghanistan and the government's handling of anthrax scares.
Blair said the public tends to want fast results and needs to be constantly reminded why war is necessary. "We need to steady people," he told CNN.
Backing up Bush, the British prime minister said terrorists responsible for the attacks in New York and Washington would gladly use weapons of mass destruction. "If they could have killed not 6,000 innocent people but 60,000 or even 600,000, they would," he said.
A 'religious duty'
Bush said that bin Laden has called it a religious duty to acquire weapons of mass destruction.
"I believe we need to take him seriously," the president said. "That's why we're going to keep relentless military pressure on him in Afghanistan."
"We will not wait for more innocent deaths," Bush said. "We must act now because we must lift this dark threat from our age."
U.S. officials said they believe al-Qaida has access to crude chemical weapons such as chlorine and phosgene poison gases, but not more complex weapons such as sarin gas. There is ample evidence that al-Qaida sought nuclear material, although it's not clear whether the group is capable of using it, according to top Bush advisers.
Vice President Dick Cheney said last month that al-Qaida has been training terrorists to use chemical and biological weapons. Fears of such an attack were heightened after investigators learned that one of the suspected Sept. 11 suicide hijackers, Mohamed Atta, tried to learn about crop-dusters in Florida.
Witnesses in the 1998 embassy bombings trial said bin Laden had sent people to Sudan to buy South African uranium for $1.5 million. The trial transcript is unclear on whether the purchase was made.
U.S. officials say that if the terrorists have obtained any nuclear material, they may be able to make a deadly weapon that spreads radiation without the actual destructive explosion. An attack with a nuclear weapon, such as the much-feared "suitcase bomb," is considered highly unlikely.
"We will do everything we can to make sure he does not acquire the means to deliver weapons of mass destruction," Bush said. "If he does have them, we will work hard to make sure he doesn't; if he does, we'll make sure he doesn't deploy them."
In the satellite address to European leaders gathered in Poland, Bush compared al-Qaida to the totalitarian regimes across Europe in the last century.
"We see the same intolerance of dissent, the same mad global ambitions, the same brutal determination to control every life and all of life," Bush said.
He issued a long indictment of the Taliban regime and its terrorist allies: They kill, then rejoice over the murders; steal food from their own people; destroy religious monuments; forbid children to fly kites, sing songs or build snowmen.
He said other nations share a responsibility to work with the U.S.-led coalition.
"These duties involve more than sympathy or words," Bush said. "No nation can be neutral in this conflict."
Administration officials said Bush was referring to nations such as Syria and Iran whose commitment to fighting terrorism is in question.
France has deployed intelligence agents to Afghanistan to aid Taliban opposition forces, opened its airspace to coalition planes and deployed two ships to the region for logistical and surveillance missions.
Bush plans to deliver his speech on homeland defense Thursday to 5,000 people in Atlanta. He also will tour the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a key federal agency involved in the anthrax investigation.