By Kamran Khan and Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, January 16, 2006
KARACHI, Pakistan, Jan. 15 -- Thousands of Pakistanis took to the streets in cities across the country Sunday to protest a U.S. missile attack two days earlier that killed more than a dozen people but apparently missed its target, Ayman Zawahiri, the deputy leader of al Qaeda.
In Karachi, Pakistan's most populous city, about 8,000 people attended a rally outside the main Binori mosque, listening to fiery speeches condemning the United States and the Pakistani president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf.
"There has been a protest in every big city, and the government understands why so many people are angry," said Sheik Rashid Ahmad, Pakistan's information minister. "When it comes to image-building in Muslim countries, particularly Pakistan, the U.S. is moving one foot forward and two backwards."
U.S. senators, appearing on television talk shows Sunday, defended the strike.
"We apologize, but I can't tell you that we wouldn't do the same thing again," Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said on CBS's "Face the Nation." "We have to do what we think is necessary to take out al Qaeda, particularly the top operatives. This guy has been more visible than Osama bin Laden lately."
Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) also defended the action. "It's a regrettable situation, but what else are we supposed to do?" he said on CNN's "Late Edition." "It's like the wild, wild West out there. The Pakistani border is a real problem."
Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said the strike was "clearly justified by the intelligence."
Friday's rocket attack in the village of Damadola, just over the border from Afghanistan, was carried out by the CIA with an unmanned Predator drone firing missiles at houses where Zawahiri was thought to have been, according to U.S. military and intelligence sources. The CIA has declined to comment.
Pakistani officials initially said 17 people were killed in the strike, but a senior intelligence official in Islamabad said Sunday that there was evidence of 13 deaths, including three children and five women. Local officials said the victims were all local residents and that no militants were killed.
U.S. intelligence sources were uncertain about the identities of those killed and about whether Zawahiri was among them. A second Pakistani intelligence official discounted reports that the FBI was considering DNA tests of the remains to determine whether any of the dead were known terrorists.
"What do you think, that the families of the victims would let us or the Americans dig the graves of their loved ones for FBI tests?" the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "An absolutely crazy idea."
U.S. officials said the Pakistani intelligence service had taken an active role in helping to coordinate the strike. But on Saturday, Pakistan formally protested the incident.
About 19,000 U.S. soldiers operate just over the border in Afghanistan, but the Pakistani government has not given them permission to cross into Pakistani territory in pursuit of al Qaeda fugitives -- many of whom are believed to be hiding out in the rugged and largely lawless tribal areas on the Pakistani side of the frontier. Zawahiri and bin Laden are thought to be among them.
Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon, the Pakistani government has been under intense pressure from the United States to cooperate more in the hunt for al Qaeda suspects, while some Islamic groups have demanded that it not cave in to U.S. interests.
The Friday attack seemed to provide fresh ammunition to the Islamic groups as they push their anti-American message. An alliance of religious parties known as Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal called Sunday's protests, but opposition political parties, as well as a key coalition partner of the government, also participated in the rallies.
The protests were relatively peaceful. Strict security measures were enforced and all roads leading to U.S. diplomatic missions in Pakistan were blocked by paramilitary forces. A rally Saturday turned violent when the offices of a U.S.-backed aid organization were ransacked and set ablaze.
The demonstrations came as thousands of U.S. troops are involved in major relief and rehabilitation work in areas of Pakistan-controlled Kashmir that were devastated by a massive earthquake last fall. Former U.S. president George H.W. Bush was due in Pakistan on Monday to survey the work. But speakers at the rallies Sunday said he would not be welcome.
"Senior Bush must not be allowed to come to Pakistan unless Junior Bush seeks pardon from the people of Pakistan for killing our innocent children and women," said Ghafoor Ahmad, leader of the radical party Jamaat-e-Islami.
Witte reported from Kabul, Afghanistan. Staff writer Dafna Linzer in Washington contributed to this report.