Pakistan's president vowed Friday to arrest leaders of banned extremist groups and force foreign students to leave Islamic schools, saying he is in a stronger position to target religious militants than during a 2002 crackdown.
"I'm in a totally different environment," said Gen. Pervez Musharraf, whose government has reported arresting nearly 600 suspected militants in the past 10 days and plans stricter oversight of religious schools where extremists are thought to be active.
Musharraf, who condemned the recent terror bombings in Britain and Egypt, has been criticized by some Western officials for not being tough enough on militants after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States.
But the president told foreign journalists Friday he did not have "a free hand" in 2002 because of an unstable economy, a confrontation with India over Kashmir and insufficient international support for his presidency.
"Maybe the boat would have capsized" if his government had pursued domestic militants more aggressively in 2002, he said. "We took action, but there were restraining factors."
Musharraf, who has turned Pakistan into a key U.S. ally in the war on terror, outlined plans to detain extremist leaders and prevent the use of mosques by those who incite militancy. He also said he would require foreigners, including those with dual nationality, to leave religious schools, which under immigration law means they would have to leave Pakistan.
"We need to act against the bigwigs of all the extremist organizations," Musharraf said. "We are not going as fast as I would like to go."
Citing successes in the fight against terror, Musharraf said Pakistan had broken al-Qaeda's "vertical and horizontal command and communication links . . . which means that they have ceased to exist as a homogenous, well-controlled, centralized force."
He said al Qaeda militants had been flushed out of Pakistani sanctuaries and were on the run, with intelligence reports showing they gather only in small groups of at most a dozen and communicate via courier messages that sometimes take two months to reach their destinations.
"Can this organization be controlling everything in the world?" said Musharraf, who bristled at suggestions that Pakistan-based militants were involved in the bombings in Britain and Egypt. "Al Qaeda has become a phenomenon. Whatever happens anywhere, suddenly someone claims to be al-Qaeda."
Two of the four presumed suicide bombers in the July 7 terrorist attacks in London traveled to Pakistan together last year, and Pakistani officials have been investigating their activities during the trip.
Both men were of Pakistani origin, and one reportedly stayed at a religious school. Musharraf said that authorities would act against the school once it is identified and that investigators were checking Pakistani telephone numbers the attackers called from Britain.