US steps up strikes against al Qaeda in Pakistan

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Washington, Mar 27: The US has escalated its unilateral strikes against Al-Qaeda in Pakistan's tribal areas, fearing a waning of support for military operations in the country by the new government.

A report in the Washington Post quoted US officials as saying that the US was worried that pro-Western President Pervez Musharraf, who supported the strikes, will almost certainly have reduced powers in the months ahead, and so it wanted to inflict as much damage as it can to al-Qaeda's network now. Over the past two months, US-controlled Predator aircraft struck at least three sites used by al-Qaeda operatives.

The attacks followed an understanding with Mr Musharraf and Army chief Gen Ashfaq Kiyani that allowed US strikes on foreign fighters operating in Pakistan, but not against the Pakistani Taliban, the officials said.

The goal was partly to get information on senior al-Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants, by forcing them to move in ways that US intelligence analysts can detect, they said. The report quoted a US administration official as saying that the campaign was not specifically designed to capture bin Laden before President George W Bush leaves office.

''It's not a blitz to close this chapter. If we find the leadership, then we'll go after it. But nothing can be done to put al-Qaeda away in the next nine or 10 months. In the long haul, it's an issue that extends beyond this administration,'' said a senior official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Daniel Markey, a former State Department policy planning staffer who is now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said ''the new faces'' in Pakistan's leadership ''are not certain how they want to manage their relationship with the US. You can't blame them.'' Other US officials said after months of prodding, the Bush administration and the Musharraf government reached a tacit understanding this year that gave Washington a freer hand to carry out precision strikes against al-Qaeda and its allies in the border region. The issue is a sensitive one that neither side is willing to discuss openly, they added.

However, Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell denied any such ''arrangement'' or ''understanding,'' but said they face a mutual enemy and ''everything we do to go after terrorists operating there is in consultation and coordination with the Pakistani government.''

UNI

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