US discloses plan to widen war on terror to Southeast Asia


WASHINGTON/MUSCAT - The United States has signalled its intention to open new fronts in its war on terrorism beyond Afghanistan and into Southeast Asia. The warning came as Britain sought to quash speculation that Iraq was next on the allies' hit-list.

As the US air strikes on Afghan targets continued for a fourth day, ahead of probable ground operations, the Bush administration said it would pursue the al-Qaeda network wherever the trail led.

This could lead to US involvement in overt and covert operations against Islamic extremists in the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia -- all countries where al-Qaeda recruits have planned attacks against US targets and where the organisation has financial and other links.

A small team of US advisers will go to the Philippines this month to help the battle against the Abu Sayyaf guerrillas operating in the southern part of the country.

The British Government took the remarkable step yesterday of releasing extracts from a classified Whitehall document on war goals in a concerted effort to convince the Arab and Muslim world that no early attack was planned on Iraq.

The rare, and possibly unprecedented, disclosure of the document, Defeating International Terrorism: Campaign Objectives, came as a senior British official travelling with the Prime Minister in the Gulf stated bluntly: "We have no evidence that links the Iraqi regime with the events of 11 September."

The document also emphasises that to deal with terrorist groups other than al-Qaeda, the second phase of the international campaign will have to address the "underlying causes of terrorism".

These include "the Arab-Israel conflict, Kashmir, problems in the Caucasus" and the need to "bear down" on the proliferation on weapons of mass destruction.

These acknowledgments represent a clear indication of intense diplomatic pressure from London and Washington for the Middle East peace process to be resumed.

American bombs and missiles pounded Kabul again this morning in an apparent attempt to destroy anti-aircraft guns close to the city centre. Residents said the attack was the most intense since the strikes began on Sunday. The airport at Kandahar, the seat of the Taleban regime, was also under bombardment.

A senior US official was quoted by CNN last night as saying that "several" Taleban leaders were killed on the first night of US-led attacks. According to the Afghan Islamic Press Agency, 76 people have been killed and more than 100 injured over the past three days.

With worthwhile targets in Afghanistan fast running out, and fixed anti-aircraft installations all but destroyed, the Pentagon was readying troop-carrying and army attack helicopters in Afghanistan to hunt down guerrillas.

Planners in Washington now hope a combination of sustained air attacks and intense surveillance will enable them to flush out and pinpoint Taleban battle units and ultimately, perhaps, Osama bin Laden himself.

The release of the British document was calculated to reduce the impact in the region of reports from Washington that the war on terrorism was to be widened to include Iraq.

It explicitly warns of "the need to ensure that there is no legitimate accusation that the West is at war with Islam and the Muslim world". The document estimates that the post-war reconstruction of Afghanistan could take "five to ten years".

The latest diplomatic moves follow a series of meetings between Tony Blair and Muslim leaders, including General Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan, Sheikh Zayed of the United Arab Emirates, and yesterday with Sultan Qaboos of Oman.

The leaders are thought to have expressed strong concerns about US intentions to extend the scope of action. British sources are adamant that prevailing opinion in Washington shares the UK view.