Thursday, December 30, 2004

Bush Takes Rare Step of Debating bin Laden

The New York Times
December 30, 2004
Bush Takes Rare Step of Debating bin Laden

CRAWFORD, Tex., Dec. 29 - President Bush took the unusual step on Wednesday of responding to one of Osama bin Laden's taunting tape recordings, declaring that Mr. bin Laden's recent call for Iraqis to boycott the elections in January "make the stakes of this pretty clear to me."

"His vision of the world is where people don't participate in democracy," Mr. Bush said of Mr. bin Laden, Al Qaeda's leader, who has eluded capture for more than three years. "His vision of the world is one in which there is no freedom of expression, freedom of religion and/or freedom of conscience. And that vision stands in stark contrast to the vision of, by far, the vast majority of Iraqis."

Mr. Bush's comments were unusual because, after having declared soon after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that he wanted Mr. bin Laden "dead or alive," the president has usually avoided mentioning him.

His aides have said it would be a strategic error to respond to every one of Mr. bin Laden's tape-recorded threats, or to seem to elevate his status by putting him in a long-distance debate with the president.

But Mr. bin Laden clearly hit a nerve with his latest message, an audiotape heard over Al Jazeera, the satellite channel, on Monday that appeared to be an effort to further undermine the chances that the outcome of the Jan. 30 election would be considered legitimate.

Mr. Bush and his aides have said they think Iraqis have a deep desire to vote - and that the mere act of voting, regardless of the outcome, will make them feel both empowered and invested in the new government.

"So the stakes are clear in this upcoming election," Mr. Bush said in a helicopter hangar on his ranch here, where he held a short news conference to express his sympathies to the victims of the Indian Ocean tsunami. "It's the difference between the ability for individuals to express themselves and the willingness of an individual to try and impose his dark vision on the world, on the people of Iraq and elsewhere. And it's very important that these elections proceed."

The comments were among the most extensive Mr. Bush has made about Mr. bin Laden in some time. He has periodically referred to him, as he did just days before the presidential election last month, when a bin Laden videotape was released.

But Mr. Bush used that tape to make the case that the world was still a dangerous place and that his strategy for pursuing Al Qaeda's leader should remain unchanged.

It also served another purpose for Mr. Bush, distracting attention from a week that had seen discussions of the administration's responsibility for allowing the looting of a large store of the explosive HMX from Iraqi warehouses.

But on Wednesday, Mr. Bush was responding to a question about a Sunni party backing out of the elections. He began by insisting that "the task at hand is to provide as much security as possible for the election officials, as well as for the people inside cities like Mosul, to encourage them to express their will."