By Griff Witte and Haq Nawaz Khan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, April 6, 2010; A07
ISLAMABAD -- With a complex and deadly assault on the most vivid symbol of U.S. influence in this country's troubled northwest, the Pakistani Taliban served notice Monday that it remains formidable despite a sustained campaign to wipe it out.
The midday attack on the U.S. Consulate in the city of Peshawar failed in its apparent aim to breach the facility's gates, but it succeeded in reminding nervous Pakistanis and apprehensive U.S. officials that the militant threat here has not gone away.
Insurgents used at least two vehicle bombs, assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades to carry out the raid, which killed eight people.
Hours earlier, a suicide attack killed 42 people at a rally for a political party that has aligned itself with the United States in opposing religious extremists. The U.S. Embassy in Islamabad said no American employees were seriously wounded.
Pakistani officials in recent weeks have sought to portray the Pakistani Taliban as having been badly hobbled by army offensives that have eliminated its vast sanctuaries, and by American missile strikes that have killed its leaders. The apparent successes have brought promises of revenge from Taliban commanders, who say they can deploy armies of young men willing to die to attack U.S. interests and the pro-Western government here.
One of the group's spokesmen claimed responsibility for the assault on the consulate Monday and vowed there would be more like it.
A Pakistani intelligence official said the violence "was meant to show that [the Taliban] can come back in a big way." The official, though, added that it is too soon to know whether the attacks marked the start of a resurgence. "One swallow does not make a spring," he said.
The consulate in Peshawar sits in the heart of the manic frontier city, and both the building and its employees have been the target of violence in the past. No U.S. mission in Pakistan has been directly attacked, however, since 2006.
The assault fits a pattern of militant strikes here in which insurgents wearing security services uniforms assault heavily guarded facilities with gunfire and suicide blasts. The strategy enabled Taliban militants to penetrate the military's general headquarters in the garrison city of Rawalpindi last fall and stage a day-long firefight with security forces. Twenty people were killed there.
Monday's assault was put down more quickly, but the attackers apparently were prepared for a long battle. Bashir Ahmad Bilour, a senior government minister in North-West Frontier Province, said they were "well equipped" with explosives.
In a statement from Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the assault "is part of a wave of violence perpetrated by brutal extremists who seek to undermine Pakistan's democracy and sow fear and discord."
"The Pakistani people have suffered grievous losses," she added, "but they are standing firm in the face of this intimidation -- and the United States stands with them."
Consulate guards were among the dead and wounded in the attack. A security post outside the consulate was destroyed by the blasts, but the consulate itself did not have major damage.
U.S. officials praised the performance of the Pakistani guards, who they said had kept the attackers from inflicting heavier losses.
One of the guards described from his hospital bed how the assailants' vehicles arrived in the security zone just outside the consulate and detonated in successive blasts. "Then there was just smoke," said the guard, who goes by the single name Imanullah.
Taliban spokesman Azam Tariq did not claim responsibility for the deadlier of the day's attacks -- which took place in Lower Dir, also in Pakistan's northwest -- but said the Awami National Party was a legitimate target because of its support for the Pakistani military's counterinsurgency efforts.
"ANP is fully backing the Pakistan army in the ongoing military operations in the tribal regions," Tariq said in a call to local journalists. "We will continue targeting ANP people and the security forces in the future."
In the past year, the Pakistani army has pushed militants out of the Swat Valley, South Waziristan and other parts of the northwest where they had once found havens. The United States has supplemented those military campaigns with a relentless stream of missile attacks fired from remotely piloted drones. The Pakistani Taliban has lost two leaders to such strikes: Baitullah Mehsud and Hakimullah Mehsud.
But Taliban commanders and foot soldiers have escaped to other parts of the country -- notably North Waziristan and neighboring tribal areas along the mountainous border with Afghanistan.
Monday's attacks overshadowed a rare speech by President Asif Ali Zardari to a joint session of Parliament. He congratulated Parliament on the expected passage of a constitutional amendment that will render the presidency little more than a figurehead office.
Zardari is expected to retain influence, however, as leader of the ruling Pakistan People's Party, which has long campaigned for a return to a system in which the prime minister and the parliament wield the power to govern.
He described the amendment as "a great achievement for the democratic process that has begun to take root."
Khan reported from Peshawar. Staff writer Karen DeYoung in Islamabad contributed to this report.