Bush postpones trip citing domestic, foreign priorities

Saturday, December 21, 2002

WASHINGTON -- The White House called off President Bush's planned trip to Africa next month, citing the standoff with Iraq and a desire to start work on domestic priorities.

The trip will be rescheduled for later in the year, said White House press secretary Ari Fleischer.

Fleischer said the multi-nation trip, which would have been Bush's first to the African continent, was being postponed "due to a combination of domestic and international considerations."

"The president looks forward to visiting Africa in 2003 to continue building America's partnership with the continent and to sharing firsthand with African leaders his commitment to working on issues ranging from the war on terrorism to economic development," Fleischer said.

One senior administration official denied that security was a factor.

But law enforcement sources said the Secret Service had concerns for the president's safety in Africa after last month's terrorist attacks in Kenya, for which Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network claimed responsibility.

A senior White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the biggest international concern was the conflict with Iraq. However, he cautioned against viewing the postponement as a signal that Bush might accelerate his decision on war with Iraq.

On Jan. 27, U.N. weapons inspectors are due to report their findings on Iraqi compliance with U.N. Security Council disarmament demands. That is the point at which Bush is expected to decide whether to proceed with a military campaign against Saddam.

The official said Bush did not want to be out of the country and away from his foreign policy team in the buildup toward decisions on Iraq in late January or early February.

On the domestic front, Bush believes he needs to spend extra attention on his agenda because of the change in GOP leadership in the Senate. Sen. Trent Lott said Friday he would not seek to remain Senate majority leader. There are also several spending bills that have not yet passed.

The official said that none of these issues alone would have caused the postponed; but, taken together, they convinced Bush it was a bad time to be abroad. He made the decision Friday.

While Bush's intended destinations in Africa were never made final, Kenya, Nairobi and South Africa were among the stops being considered.

Kenya and Nairobi presented particularly troubling security challenges.

On Nov. 28, terrorists fired two missiles at a chartered airliner carrying Israeli tourists home as it was taking off from the Mombasa, Kenya, airport for Tel Aviv.

About the same time, a vehicle driven by at least two suicide bombers and packed with explosives plowed into the Paradise Hotel, an Israeli-owned beachfront hotel 12 miles north of Mombasa.

Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network has twice said that it was responsible for the attacks, but Israeli officials have blamed al-Ittihad al-Islami, a Somali-based group with links to the al-Qaida network.

The twin attack was reminiscent of al-Qaida's well-coordinated and deadly 1998 assault on the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya and Tanzania.

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