ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — The brazen truck-bombing of the Marriott hotel in Islamabad on Saturday is a warning from Islamic militants to Pakistan's new civilian leadership that it should end already-strained cooperation with the United States to pursue al-Qaida and the Taliban, analysts said.
The massive bomb targeting an American hotel chain killed at least 40 people and wounded hundreds, setting a fire that blazed for hours and gutted most of the five-story luxury hotel.
"The attack on the hotel is a message to the Pakistani leadership: End all cooperation with the Americans or pay the price," said Brian Glyn Williams, associate professor of Islamic history at the University of Massachusetts. "Both sides see Pakistan as a vital battlefield in their global struggle and clearly Pakistani civilians are paying the price for being in the middle of this struggle," he told The Associated Press.
Within hours of the explosion, Pakistan's Defense Minister Ahmed Mukhtar was quoted on local television channels blaming "foreigners" for the bombing. He pointed the finger at al Qaida and its Chechen and Uzbek members, whose hideouts in the tribal regions have been targeted by the Pakistan military.
Terrorism researcher Evan Kohlmann told The AP it is almost certainly either Al-Qaida or Pakistani Taliban.
"We are looking at either Al Qaida or Tehrik-e-Taliban (Pakistan)," Kohlmann said. "It seems that someone has a firm belief that hotels like the Marriott are serving as 'barracks' for western diplomats and intel personnel, and they are gunning pretty hard for them."
Cross-border raids anger Pakistanis
Meanwhile, Pakistan's newly elected President Asif Zardari addressed the nation soon after the bombing vowing not to be cowed and to step up Pakistan's assault on terrorists.
The U.S. has angered Pakistanis with increasing cross-border raids by its forces from Afghanistan to root out Islamic militants entrenched in the lawless and rugged tribal regions along the border.
Local newspapers are filled with outrage from columnists who accuse the United States of treating Pakistan as a surrogate, flaunting its sovereignty and killing innocents. Civilian casualties from the U.S. assaults have prompted tribesmen in the volatile frontier to threaten revolt.
Williams said the country's new leaders are caught between pressure from the U.S. to crack down on the militants and al-Qaida demands that they cut all ties with America.
Officials have harshly criticized U.S. incursions into Pakistani airspace and last week, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, visited Pakistan to try to calm the anger.
Threats against, by Zardari
At the same time, the government is also talking tough to the other side.
Just hours before the suicide bombing, Zardari vowed to wage war against extremists who have been battling government troops in the violent northwest. Osama bin Laden and his top deputies are believed to be hiding in the border region and the U.S. claims al-Qaida and the Taliban have found a safe haven to regroup there.
Zardari has received several threats from al-Qaida and the Taliban, who are suspected of assassinating his wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, in December.
Last month al-Qaida No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahri accused Pakistan's new leaders of acting on behalf of the United States and called on his followers to rise up against them.
"Let there be no doubt in your minds that the dominant political forces at work in Pakistan today are competing to appease and please the modern day crusaders in the White House and are working to destabilize this nuclear-capable nation under the aegis of America," said an audio message purported to be from al-Zawahri.
The militant groups that operate in Pakistan's northwest are a ferocious and disparate group.
The Pakistani Taliban operate under the umbrella group, Tehrik-e-Taliban, which was established last December. It used a tried and tested strategy to gain control of the area — promising to restore law and order.
Within months of taking control, the Pakistani Taliban then terrorizes the local population with public beheadings. Occasionally men accused of spying for the United States are taken to the center of the village and publicly beheaded. Taliban fighters often make videos of the gruesome beheadings that circulate in the markets in northwest Pakistan.
Daniel Markey, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and former State Department official, questioned the government's ability to wage a successful battle without overhauling Pakistan's intelligence service, which is often accused of aiding and abetting the militants.
"They are able to fight but not able to win without a lot of changes," he said. "Most will have to be done by the Pakistani army and (intelligence), some by civilian government, and some that would need outside assistance," Markey added.
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