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Wednesday, March 19

Life goes on in nation's capital as America girds for war

By Larry Bivins and Sergio Bustos

WASHINGTON - Housing executive Norman McKeone had little fear of a terrorist strike in Maine so it was understandable Tuesday when he said he was eager to return home from the nation's capital where an imminent U.S.-led war against Iraq dominated news coverage. "This is a place I would think any terrorist would want to hit,'' said McKeone, who has been in town since Friday to lobby members of Congress on housing issues. "Maine is 99 percent woodland - nothing to hit there.'' With images of a smoldering, charred Pentagon and crumbling World Trade Center still fresh in the minds of many, the nation's capital braced for the possibility of retaliation by terrorists once war with Iraq breaks out. The order of a military assault against Iraq to disarm President Saddam Hussein was virtually certain Tuesday amid reports that the dictator would defy President Bush's ultimatum Monday night to leave in 48 hours or suffer the consequences. Bush said Saddam has flouted demands from the United Nations to destroy weapons of mass destruction. The president also said the Iraqi leader supports terrorist groups, including the al-Qaida network that is accused of carrying out the Sept. 11 attacks. Fearing a terrorist backlash, the Bush administration tightened security around the nation's major transportation hubs, at nuclear and chemical plants and key food supply and distribution centers. The U.S. Secret Service planned to establish a security perimeter around the White House. And the Department of Homeland Security raised the terror alert from yellow to orange, or high risk, the second-highest level on a scale of five. Travelers on alert All of that has Sherie Johnson of Iowa uncertain about her plans for the rest of the week with her father and stepmother, who joined her here from Sioux Falls, S.D. They had scheduled a tour of the U.S. Capitol on Thursday. "We hope to go, and we plan to see as much as we can,'' Johnson, 39, said while standing near the Smithsonian Institution in the shadow of the Washington Monument. Johnson already has gotten a sense of the havoc a terrorist threat can create when she visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on Monday. Police evacuated the area and closed off several blocks after a North Carolina farmer drove a tractor possibly packed with explosives into a pond near the shrine. "That joker with the John Deere backed up traffic all over the place,'' Johnson complained. At Union Station, Rita Bergers and her daughter, Delaney, 15, waited for a train to Baltimore, about 40 miles north of Washington. Bergers, a pharmaceutical sales representative from Houston, said the capital is as safe a place to be as any city. "I've given a lot of thought to it, and if we think about 9-11, any major metropolitan city is a target potentially,'' she said. "Washington is probably just as good a city as any to be in because of the government and security, but it certainly is unsettling.'' Even more worrisome for her daughter, she said, is the prospect of flying home after war is declared. "That has caused her some consternation,'' she said. While many visitors treaded around the capital with trepidation over the implications of war, many who live and work in the area shrugged off the threat of another attack. "You can't get all stressed out about the situation,'' said Lynneda Simmons, an employee at the Department of Agriculture and a native Washingtonian. "This is all in God's hands. If we act like we're scared, then everyone is going to feel scared.''> For Arvin Neewor, a 29-year-old airline pilot who moved here with his wife from Mauritius a few months ago, the fear factor is not as great as it is in other countries. "I don't see this as a dangerous place at all,'' he said. "I don't think we will witness another tragedy like what happened September 11. That caught this country off guard. Today, the United States is far more secure, more prepared than ever to prevent such an attack.'' Getting used to it Lawmakers expressed similar sentiments as they tried to project a business-as-usual attitude in the face of an impending war and possible new terrorist strikes. "We have, unfortunately, been through this before already, and I think people are getting used to a heightened level of concern,'' said freshman Sen. Norm Coleman of Minnesota, who added that his office recently received an envelope of white powder suspected of being the deadly bacteria called anthrax. The powder, Coleman added, "splashed all over one of my young staffers, and everyone handled that very calmly. It was a hoax, but nobody panicked.'' After their weekly party caucus lunches, the Republican and Democratic leaders of the Senate reflected the mood of their colleagues. Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota said Democrats were saddened that "we haven't been able to resolve this diplomatically, and that was expressed many ways in the caucus.'' He added that his caucus was ``really determined to be supportive of our troops.'' Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee said the atmosphere among Senate Republicans was "somber, probably reflective of constituents across America. I believe we are at increased risk. But I also believe we are as prepared as we could possibly be.''Yet, no amount of precaution in Washington could persuade McKeone to stay another day. He expected to fly back to Maine on Wednesday. "If I could have known that (Bush) would declare war this week, I wouldn't have come to Washington,'' he said. "I don't feel good about it at all. There are a lot of people out there who are willing to do crazy things." (Contributing: Susan Roth, GNS.)