By Griff Witte and Kamran Khan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, January 15, 2006
KABUL, Afghanistan, Jan. 14 -- Pakistani officials said Saturday that a U.S. missile strike intended to kill al Qaeda deputy Ayman Zawahiri had missed its target but had killed 17 people, including six women and six children.
Tens of thousands of Pakistanis staged an angry anti-American protest near the remote village of Damadola, about 120 miles northwest of Islamabad, where Friday's attack took place. According to witnesses, the demonstrators shouted, "Death to America!" and "Death to Musharraf!" -- referring to Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf -- and the offices of at least one U.S.-backed aid organization were ransacked and set ablaze.
In Washington, U.S. intelligence sources said it was too early to know whether the strike had killed Zawahiri, 54, an Egyptian physician who is al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden's top aide. "The outcome of this doesn't seem decided," said a source who spoke on condition of anonymity.
U.S. officials defended the strike, saying it was the right course of action based on timely intelligence about Zawahiri's whereabouts early Friday. Zawahiri had been under surveillance by the CIA for two weeks, security sources said.
The CIA, which military and intelligence sources say carried out the attack with a type of unmanned aircraft called a Predator, declined to comment Saturday.
Local authorities denied that any foreigners had been present in the area.
"We can say with full authority that those who were killed were all innocent permanent residents of the village Damadola," said Sirajul Haq, senior minister of Pakistan's North-West Frontier province. "Any independent probe would confirm that no foreigner was in the vicinity of the neighborhood targeted by the U.S. missiles."
Two officials with Pakistan's military intelligence service confirmed the local leaders' assessment. The Pakistani government in Islamabad, however, produced a more muted response, saying it had formally protested the strike to the U.S. government but conceding there may have been people in the area whom the United States would have an interest in attacking.
The strike was the latest in a series aimed at al Qaeda fugitives believed to be hiding in the region along Pakistan's porous and largely lawless border with Afghanistan.
After al Qaeda carried out the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon, U.S. forces and Afghan militias toppled the Afghan Taliban movement, which had sheltered and supported bin Laden's organization. Bin Laden, Zawahiri and many other al Qaeda leaders are believed to have crossed the border and taken refuge in Pakistan's tribal regions, where they have eluded capture.
At the same time, Pakistani security services have apprehended several key al Qaeda operatives in the country's teeming cities. Khalid Sheik Mohammed, reputed to have planned many of the organization's terrorist attacks, including those on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, was captured in Rawalpindi in March 2003. The previous September, the reputed coordinator of the Sept. 11 attacks, Ramzi Binalshibh, was captured in the port city of Karachi.
Zawahiri, who is considered by many to be al Qaeda's principal strategist, has released several videotapes in which he has urged Muslims worldwide to join a holy war against the United States. In a video released Jan. 6, he suggested President Bush's decision to reduce U.S. troop strength there constituted a victory for al Qaeda in Iraq.
U.S. and Pakistani authorities have said they have come close to killing Zawahiri in the past. In early 2004, Pakistani security forces believed they had him surrounded in the tribal areas, only to discover he had slipped away. On Saturday, al-Arabiya television reported that Zawahiri was alive, citing a source it said had been in contact with al Qaeda. "Reports of his death are wishful thinking," the network quoted unnamed sources as saying.
Residents of the largely autonomous tribal areas have frequently resisted efforts to capture or kill al Qaeda fugitives and have denounced the Bush and Musharraf administrations over attacks in the region. Friday's missile strike seemed to have fanned such sentiment.
"We want a swift government response to this aggression," said Zarwali Rahbar, a tribal elder who spoke at the rally near Damadola. "General Musharraf should protect us and not the U.S. interests in Pakistan."
U.S. military sources said Pakistan's intelligence service had been heavily involved in the attack. Senior Pakistani officials would not confirm involvement in the strike but acknowledged regular intelligence cooperation with the United States.
"The intelligence sharing is on an almost daily basis," said a senior Pakistani intelligence official, who said the cooperation included sharing of both human and electronic intelligence sources.
Late Saturday, the Pakistani Foreign Ministry said in a statement that it had lodged a formal protest over the incident with the United States, but it left open the possibility that outsiders were operating in the vicinity of the strike.
"According to preliminary investigations, there was foreign presence in the area and that in all probability was targeted from across the border in Afghanistan," the statement said. "The investigations are still continuing. Meanwhile the Foreign Office has lodged a protest with the U.S. ambassador in Islamabad."
In Washington, the State Department said it had not received a formal protest.
A protest by Pakistan would be its second in less than a week, the first having come after a missile struck a village in the North Waziristan tribal region close to the Afghan border. That attack killed eight people, and local officials said terrorist suspects were not among them.
In December, a senior al Qaeda leader, Hamza Rabia, was believed to have been killed in a CIA-led strike in Pakistan along the Afghan border.
Musharraf did not address the attack directly Saturday. But while speaking at a public rally in the town of Sawabi, a hotbed of Islamic radicalism in North-West Frontier province, he asked people not to let suspected militants hide in their neighborhoods. "The consequences will be severe," he said.
Human rights organizations in Pakistan were vocal in condemning the attack, which they said undermined the cause of democracy in a country whose president came to power in a military coup in 1999.
"When the U.S. and other Western powers commit such a gross violation of human rights, it further weakens our position to highlight the human rights violations of Pakistan's military ruler in the world," said Afrasiab Khattak, director of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.
Khan reported from Karachi, Pakistan. Staff writers Dafna Linzer and Glenn Kessler in Washington contributed to this report.