By Pamela Constable and Dafna Linzer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, January 18, 2006
U.S. intelligence sources said Tuesday that they were increasingly certain a missile strike in Pakistan on Friday had failed to kill Ayman Zawahiri, second in command of al Qaeda, but regional officials in Pakistan said the attack had killed four or five other foreign Islamic extremists who were attending a dinner in a village near the Afghan border.
The Pakistani report bolstered earlier U.S. assertions of strong pre-strike intelligence that a group of al Qaeda figures was in the immediate area. But political condemnation and confusion continued in Pakistan over the CIA-ordered strike, in which 13 to 18 civilians, including women and children, were also reported to have died.
News of the civilian casualties provoked angry anti-American demonstrations by Muslim groups in several cities over the weekend, straining the government's role as an ally in the U.S. anti-terrorism effort. On Tuesday, government ministers also condemned the attack after a stormy session of the National Assembly in Islamabad.
Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz, due to leave for a visit to the United States this week, tried to smooth over the contradictions Tuesday, saying, "Pakistan is committed to fighting terrorism, but naturally we cannot accept any action within our country which results in what happened over the weekend."
Aziz, who spoke during a news conference in Islamabad with former president George H.W. Bush, said he would raise the issue with U.S. officials, but he suggested that the attack was a single "unfortunate" incident in a "long-standing" U.S.-Pakistan relationship. Bush is in Pakistan to survey relief efforts following the Oct. 8 earthquake.
Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who had been expected to discuss the controversial attack in a televised address Tuesday night, did not mention it, instead announcing that he would postpone plans to build a controversial dam that was strongly opposed in several provinces.
Confusion over the incident deepened in Pakistan because of contradictory official statements. Although the administrator of the Bajur tribal region where the strike occurred said four or five foreign terrorists had been killed, the federal information minister said there was "no information about the presence of any foreign terrorists" in Bajur. "Such a violation of our territories will not be tolerated next time," he said.
Musharraf's government has come under intense conflicting pressures as it tries to cooperate with U.S. anti-terrorism efforts without provoking influential domestic Islamic organizations. Those groups can easily arouse the emotions of devout Muslims who are suspicious of American motives in the region.
Officially, Pakistan does not allow U.S. military incursions in its territory, and the CIA has declined to comment on the Friday strike. But intelligence sources said the site was struck by several missiles fired from unmanned Predator aircraft.
An informed official source in Pakistan said Tuesday that Pakistani intelligence officials knew about the strike in advance and that there was "no doubt" foreign terrorists were being harbored in the village. In Afghanistan, a U.S. military source said American and Pakistani officials had been cooperating on anti-terrorist operations, including the Friday strike.
On Tuesday, U.S. intelligence sources said they were increasingly certain that Zawahiri, an Egyptian-born physician and senior deputy to Osama bin Laden, was not in the compound as expected when the Predators struck early Friday. The sources said no definitive conclusion could be reached until all the evidence, including DNA sampling, had been evaluated.
There has been conflicting information in Pakistan about the number of dead and the whereabouts of the bodies. Villagers said they had buried all the dead, but the Bajur administrator said the bodies of foreign militants had been removed by their associates, and one Pakistani official said the bodies had been taken away for DNA tests.
U.S. intelligence sources said there was mounting evidence that several of Zawahiri's aides, including Egyptian men, were killed in the strike. The targeted compound, in the village of Damadola, was believed to have hosted key al Qaeda figures in the past.
One U.S. source said the CIA had been tracking movements in the area for two weeks, and another said U.S. intelligence officials were given time-sensitive information that Zawahiri was expected to be among a group of guests at a banquet Thursday night.
"There were strong indications that the same people who had been in the compound before would be there again," said a U.S. military source in Afghanistan, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The missile strike was the latest in a series of attacks believed to have been carried out by the United States against suspected terrorist targets in Pakistan. Earlier this month, a strike in North Waziristan, another semiautonomous tribal area near the Afghan border, killed eight people, prompting a protest by the Pakistani government.
The U.S. military source said Tuesday that the United States had been more aggressive in collecting information on terrorist activities in the tribal areas of Pakistan and that this might help explain the spike in attacks.
Correspondent Griff Witte in Kabul, Afghanistan, and special correspondent Kamran Khan in Karachi, Pakistan, contributed to this report.