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Attacks Strain Efforts On Terror
But since the United States invaded Afghanistan and toppled the Taliban after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the border has taken on special significance. On the Afghan side, the United States has 19,000 troops who provide crucial support for the government and who enjoy a relative degree of popularity. On the Pakistani side, U.S. troops are officially forbidden from pursuing terrorists. As a consequence, many Islamic militants who found sanctuary in Afghanistan before Sept. 11 reportedly have taken refuge in the semiautonomous tribal areas where sympathies for al Qaeda and its leader, Osama bin Laden, run high.
Until recently, the United States had been dependent on raids by Pakistani security forces to catch the fugitives, with mixed results. But in the predawn hours of Jan. 13, the United States used a different tactic, firing Hellfire missiles from drones in a bid to kill Zawahiri. Pakistani and U.S. intelligence sources have said they expected him to show up for dinner at a house in Damadola, but they now believe he was not there.
The missiles killed at least 13 others. After the attack, local officials said that only villagers were killed, among them women and children, who were buried nearby. But Pakistani intelligence sources have since asserted, without offering proof, that a handful of foreign al Qaeda militants also died, possibly including its chief explosives expert, a son-in-law of Zawahiri and an operational leader in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The Pakistani government's response has been as conflicted as the reports. Some officials joined with the protesters in vehemently denouncing the attack, while others acknowledged that militants operate in the area. Even as the Foreign Ministry lodged a formal objection with the U.S. Embassy, Musharraf stayed silent in public, except to warn his countrymen not to harbor terrorists.
Pakistani Foreign Minister Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri acknowledged in an interview that the strike has put stress on the government, which since 2001 has walked a fine line of assisting the U.S. anti-terrorism campaign -- and receiving billions of dollars in aid in return -- while also trying to appease radical Islamic constituencies at home.
"Such an action creates immense internal problems for us as the perception grows that the U.S. has no respect for our sovereignty," Kasuri said.
U.S. officials, however, say Pakistan's objections amount to posturing. According to American military and intelligence sources who spoke on condition of anonymity, Pakistan had signed off on this month's strike beforehand and had even assisted with gathering pre-attack intelligence.
The use of Predator drones to strike targets in Pakistan is relatively new, and several security officials said it could not happen without the consent of the Pakistani government. There have been at least three such attacks since last May; one in December reportedly succeeded in killing a senior al Qaeda commander, Hamza Rabia.
But now, it remains unclear whether Predator attacks will be allowed to continue.
On Saturday, in a meeting with U.S. Undersecretary of State R. Nicholas Burns, Musharraf said attacks such as the one aimed at Zawahiri "should not be repeated," according to Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Tasneem Aslam.
Pakistani Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz, who on Sunday denied that Pakistan had received prior notice of this month's attack, is expected to raise the issue with Bush when they meet at the White House this week.
A senior Pakistani intelligence official, however, said nothing was likely to change in terms of actual U.S. and Pakistani efforts at hunting militants.