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AVIANO AIR BASE, Italy -- Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld worked to rally European support Friday for the American case against Saddam Hussein, saying the hour for action to disarm Iraq is fast approaching.
Rumsfeld met in Rome with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and Defense Minister Antonio Martino. Afterward, Martino said at a news conference with Rumsfeld that his government shares the U.S. position on Iraq.
"It would be a terrible, terrible blow to the credibility of the United Nations" if Hussein was allowed to continue defying the resolution on disarmament, Martino said.
Rumsfeld later visited U.S. forces stationed at Aviano Air Base in northern Italy. Standing before more than 1,000 troops, who crowded inside a hangar with an F-16 fighter jet, Rumsfeld said, "You're what stands between freedom and fear, between the safety of our people and an evil that cannot be appeased; it cannot be ignored, and it must not be allowed to win."
The main focus of Rumsfeld's trip is to build support among reluctant European allies. His travels, which include a series of meetings today in Munich, Germany, coincide with an accelerating buildup of American forces in the Persian Gulf region. Within days they will number more than 150,000, enough to launch at least the first stage of an invasion to depose the Iraqi leader.
"This is a critical time," Rumsfeld said en route to Rome. "Anyone who looks at what's taking place can see that momentum is building with respect to efforts to get Iraq to disarm."
WASHINGTON -- The State Department advised nonessential U.S. diplomats and family members Friday to leave Israel, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. Private U.S. citizens were advised to leave and Americans were cautioned not to travel to Israel.
At the same time, the department urged Americans to stay away from Iraq and said it was closing the Polish office in Baghdad that provided consular service to Americans in the absence of U.S. relations with Iraq.
Officials said the decision was made on the advice of American diplomats in the embassies and not because of a specific threat to U.S. personnel.
"This decision results from an overall assessment of the security situation in the region, a rise in anti-American sentiment and the potential for violence and terrorist action against American targets, especially as the international community continues to focus on the issue of Iraqi disarmament," Lou Fintor, a department spokesman, said.
"This is not to say that military action against Iraq is imminent," Fintor said.
The U.S. embassies in Tel Aviv, Amman, Damascus and Beirut and the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem will remain open to assist Americans, the spokesman said.
GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip -- Hundreds of Palestinians carrying posters of Saddam Hussein marched in Gaza City on Friday to protest U.S. plans for a war in Iraq.
The march was organized by Hamas, the militant Islamic movement that has killed hundreds of Israelis in bombings and shootings in 28 months of fighting.
Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the group's spiritual leader, said war on Iraq is a war against all Muslims. "America must be buried in Iraq so they can learn a lesson not to attack any Arab countries."
Israel's army chief said a successful campaign to oust Hussein could help ease the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He noted that in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War, the first Palestinian uprising cooled and peace talks began.