Bush Cites New Thaw In Terrorist Activities

LEXINGTON, Va.?Amid fresh questions on the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden, President Bush on Wednesday predicted a “spring thaw” that will bring an increase in terrorist activity as bin Laden’s network tries to regroup and strike again.

Still, he pledged, “We will defeat the threats against our country and the civilized world.”

The president used an address to cadets at Virginia Military Institute to give an update on his war against terrorism at a time when dubious results of his Mideast peace initiative and the lingering, elusive specter of bin Laden have claimed the headlines.

Bush focused on what he called “day by day, terrorist by terrorist” progress and said resolving the Israeli-Palestinian crisis is part of his broader?and long?battle against terrorism.

“Wherever global terrorism threatens the civilized world, we and our friends and allies will respond, and respond decisively,” Bush said.

Despite signs of wavering by Arab partners, Bush proclaimed the international coalition behind his anti-terror efforts “strong and united and acting.” Without naming Iraq, he renewed his determination to squash the threat of outlaw regimes in an “axis of evil.”

Afghanistan’s Taliban, Bush said forebodingly, is but “the first regime to fall in the war against terror.”

He put a humanitarian face, too, on his cause:

“America has a much greater purpose than just eliminating threats and containing resentment because we believe in the dignity and value of every individual. America seeks hope and opportunity for all people in all cultures.”

Bush counted off the accomplishments in the first phase of the war in Afghanistan, where bin Laden and his al Qaeda network and Taliban allies were rousted by U.S. military might.

“We’re clearing minefields, we’re rebuilding roads, we’re improving medical care and we’ll work to help Afghanistan develop an economy that can feed its people without feeding the world’s demands for drugs,” Bush said.

But a new videotape surfaced in Qatar this week showing bin Laden alive and at work to terrorize Americans. It remains unclear when the tape was made, but serves as vivid reminder that the Bush administration does not know where the suspected mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks is. A White House official said the government’s assumption is that bin Laden was present during December’s fierce firefighting in Tora Bora, Afghanistan, but escaped.

Bush focused instead on the one senior bin Laden lieutenant U.S. forces have nabbed, Abu Zubaydah, the third-ranking figure in the al Qaeda terror network.

“He’s not plotting and he’s not planning any more. He’s under lock and key; and we’re going to give him some company. We’re hunting down the killers one by one,” Bush told thousands of cheering military cadets in formal dress uniforms.

Citing intelligence gathered from the laptop computers, maps and drawings seized as U.S. forces scoured al Qaeda hide-outs in Afghanistan, Bush gave a chilling forecast of the potential for more attacks.

“As the spring thaw comes, we expect cells of trained killers to try to regroup, to murder, to create mayhem and try to undermine Afghanistan’s efforts to build a lasting peace,” the president said.

The president is likely to use a planned address at West Point for another such update in several weeks, said another White House aide.

Public approval of Bush’s military campaign against al Qaeda in Afghanistan remains strong, with an approval rating ranging from 75 to 80 percent.