MUSCAT, Oman (AP) _ Even as American military forces prepare for possible action in Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld is taking every opportunity to counter the notion that President Bush's campaign against terrorism is aimed at Muslims.
Rumsfeld flew to the Omani capital Thursday to consult with Sultan Qaboos, the ruler of this moderate Arab country, whose coastline stretches from the Strait of Hormuz to the Arabian Sea border with Yemen.
Rumsfeld and several senior aides flew by helicopter from the capital to Sham Camp, the monarch's desert encampment, for private talks.
Later Thursday, Rumsfeld was flying to Egypt to meet with senior government officials and to visit with U.S. troops participating in a large-scale biennial exercise called Bright Star.
A senior official traveling with Rumsfeld told reporters en route to Muscat that Rumsfeld did not intend to ask the Omanis for expanded access for American forces or for new forms of military cooperation. He said the purpose was to demonstrate U.S. resolve to fight a sustained campaign against terrorism.
That echoed public comments Rumsfeld made in Saudi Arabia on the first stop of his four-nation tour.
Rumsfeld told a midnight news conference Wednesday in Riyadh that no one should equate Bush's determination to eradicate terrorist networks with a desire to divide Muslims.
``This is not an issue of a religion, Muslim or otherwise,'' Rumsfeld said, with Prince Sultan sitting beside him in a formal, gold-trimmed white robe. Rumsfeld said some are trying to cast Bush's response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks as a worldwide campaign against people of the Islamic faith.
``The propagation of that nonsense serves only the terrorists,'' he said.
Rumsfeld has taken every public opportunity to recall U.S. efforts in recent years on behalf of predominantly Muslim nations. He cited the examples of the 1990-91 U.S.-led fight to reverse Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, the battles to end Bosnia's civil war, the air campaign in Kosovo to return Kosovo Albanians to their homes, and millions of dollars in U.S. humanitarian aid to Afghanistan.
Oman has an extensive record of cooperating with the United States, and in most cases it has done so more openly than other nations on the Arabian Peninsula. It began with assistance to the United States in what became known as the ``tanker war'' in the Gulf during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s.
As Rumsfeld arrived in Muscat on Thursday, Omani and British armed forces were holding a large-scale exercise with air, sea and land forces. A U.S. official said the exercise was planned before the Sept. 11 attacks.
When U.S. and British warplanes carried out an intensive four-day bombing campaign against Iraq in December 1998, Oman allowed Air Force B-1 Lancers to launch bombing missions from its territory.
At the height of the Gulf War, more than 3,000 U.S. troops were stationed at Omani air bases on Masirah Island, Thumrait, and Seeb International Airport near Muscat. Since then the U.S. military presence has been mainly limited to two aircraft units _ a C-130 transport squadron at Seeb North Air Base and a P-3 maritime patrol detachment at Masirah Air Base. U.S. Navy ships frequently make port visits to Oman, and 75 percent of Air Force reserve equipment in the Middle East is in Oman.