U.S. drone strikes kill 16 in Pakistani region thought to be al-Qaeda home base

By Griff Witte and Haq Nawaz Khan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, December 18, 2009

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN -- An unusually large barrage of missiles fired by remotely piloted U.S. aircraft killed 16 people in the tribal area of North Waziristan on Thursday, a possible indication that the United States plans to escalate such attacks after Pakistan declined to step up its operations there.

The attacks came in a week in which top U.S. military officials visited Islamabad and asked Pakistani authorities to do more to go after insurgent groups that are based in North Waziristan but are focused on killing U.S. troops across the border in Afghanistan.

Pakistani officials say that their military is stretched thin by an operation in South Waziristan and that now is not the time to expand the campaign into the adjacent territory. American officials have countered that if Pakistan does not go after the groups, the United States will.

News of the attacks broke as Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, a U.S. ally, faced new challenges to his authority. Pakistan's Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that a broad amnesty agreement that had protected Zardari and thousands of other government officials from prosecution on corruption charges was unconstitutional. On Thursday, there were growing calls from opposition politicians for Zardari to resign, and analysts said his position is increasingly precarious.

Top deputies in his government also are under threat: The national anti-corruption agency said it had placed more than 200 officials on a list that bans them from leaving the country because, with the amnesty deal nullified, they are now subject to prosecution. Interior Minister Rehman Malik was on the list, as was Defense Minister Chaudhry Ahmed Mukhtar, who called local television stations Thursday night to say he had been barred from boarding a flight to China.

Zardari, who has denied any wrongdoing, was not said to be on the list, but the travel ban will make it difficult for his government to function.

His troubles complicate U.S. efforts to enlist greater Pakistani participation in a plan to squeeze insurgent groups that operate in the remote Afghanistan-Pakistan border region.

The U.S. government does not officially acknowledge its program of drone attacks, which is its primary tool for going after militants based on the Pakistani side of the border. The Islamabad government officially condemns the attacks but cooperates with the CIA in gathering intelligence needed to carry out the strikes.

Thursday's attacks included one set of strikes that officials said involved 10 missiles fired from five drones -- an unusually heavy concentration of firepower on a single target. Officials said 15 people died in the strikes, including a well-known al-Qaeda commander named Zuhaib al-Zahibi, while one person was killed in a strike earlier in the day.

North Waziristan is the suspected home base of the al-Qaeda leadership, as well as the network of Afghan insurgent leader Siraj Haqqani, who is thought to be behind some of the most potent attacks against U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

The U.S. military has made increasing use of drones in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq. The Pentagon said Thursday that insurgents in Iraq, using off-the-shelf software, had intercepted live video feeds from Predator drones, exploiting unencrypted communications links in some of the pilotless systems.

The insurgents were able to see video of roads and buildings under U.S. military surveillance but were unable to take control of the drones or alter their course, officials said, confirming a report in the Wall Street Journal. Officials said the problem has been fixed but did not disclose how.

Special correspondent Shaiq Hussain and staff writer Ellen Nakashima in Washington contributed to this report.

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