WASHINGTON -- President Bush ordered a freeze Monday on the assets of 27 people and organizations with suspected links to terrorism, including Islamic militant Osama bin Laden, and urged other nations to do likewise. Foreign banks that don't cooperate could have their own transactions blocked in the United States.
"Money is the lifeblood of terrorist operations," Bush said. "Today, we're asking the world to stop payment."
The move was an effort to choke off financial support for bin Laden, whom the United States considers the prime suspect in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
The list names 12 individuals, including bin Laden and an Egyptian militant suspected to be his top deputy; 11 organizations, including bin Laden's al-Qaida network; three charities and one business.
Missing from the list are Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah, militant groups that are on the State Department's roster of terrorists but that some Arab nations see as legitimate fighters against Israel.
Bush acknowledged that terrorists' assets in the United States were small. But his order also gives the Treasury Department wider authority to go after transactions of foreign banks that refuse to cooperate in the campaign against terrorism.
"It puts the financial world on notice," Bush said in a Rose Garden appearance. "If you do business with terrorists, if you support or sponsor them, you will not do business with the United States of America."
The president said he recognized that some European countries would probably need to rewrite their own laws to meet America's conditions. Switzerland, for one, is well known for banking secrecy.
Bush said the administration would respond on a "case-by-case basis" in determining compliance.
He also announced the creation of a foreign asset tracking center at the Treasury Department to "follow the money as a trail to the terrorists."
Previous efforts to cut bin Laden off from funds have been unsuccessful, including steps by the United States and the United Nations in 1998 to freeze his assets after the U.S. Embassy bombings in Africa. Bin Laden, an exile from Saudi Arabia, has a personal fortune estimated at $300 million.
Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill said the order should send a message to anyone who does business with terrorists: "Cooperate in this fight or we will freeze your U.S. assets."
Administration officials acknowledged that the immediate impact of Bush's executive order is hard to gauge.
"It may be an imperfect solution ... but it is necessary to start with the documented, recorded international banking system," said David Aufhauser, the Treasury Department's general counsel.
One of the big challenges is tracking money that moves through an underground banking system in the Middle East and parts of Asia, where large amounts of cash change hands in a paperless network based on personal trust.
In addition to bin Laden, the administration's list names Ayman al-Zawahri, a Cairo surgeon believed by terrorism experts to be bin Laden's top deputy. Al-Zawahri, a suspect in the 1981 assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, is believed to be operating in Afghanistan, as is bin Laden.
Also listed are the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, the Libyan Islamic Fighting group, the Armed Islamic Group and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, a little-known group that Bush mentioned in his address to Congress and the nation last week.
The United States is seeking permission to deploy U.S. forces in Uzbekistan, which borders Afghanistan to the north. Its president, Islam Karimov, has been fighting the group.
Bush's order listed three charitable organizations that the government said are funding terrorist acts: Mukhtab al-Khidamat/Al Kifah, Wafa Humanitarian Organization and Al Rashid Trust.
"They can very well have received money from Americans or from others abroad who thought they were doing good for people who need relief," said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer.
The Mamoun Darkazanli Import-Export Co., is the business on the list.
The absence of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah - better known than most of those groups on the list - showed the delicate path Bush must walk in trying to enlist support from Arab and Islamic states.
Some Arab nations, including Saudi Arabia and the Gulf emirates, have indicated they will not help the United States if any of these three groups become a target. The Arab nations worry their citizens will become outraged if they help America go after groups that resist Israel.
Raanan Gissin, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's spokesman, said Israel had "our own list of terrorists."
Separately, Attorney General John Ashcroft told the House Judiciary Committee the administration would like authority to seize - rather than just freeze - assets linked to terrorist activities and organizations.
Associated Press writer Jeannine Aversa contributed to this report.
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