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Pakistani PM visits U.S. amid airstrike tensions

Pakistan’s prime minister is visiting Washington at a time of rising tension between the two allies, with thousands demonstrating in Pakistan to denounce an airstrike earlier this month.
Pakistani tribesmen listen to Maulana Mohammed Sadiq during a rally Sunday to condemn recent U.S. airstrikes in that country.AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Pakistan’s prime minister is visiting Washington at a time of rising tension between the two allies, with thousands demonstrating regularly in Pakistan to denounce a U.S. airstrike that killed civilians earlier this month.

With Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz scheduled to meet Monday with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and the following day with President Bush, Pakistani officials are taking care to affirm their loyalty to the United States in the war on terror.

But relations between Islamabad and Washington have sunk since the Jan. 13 attack that killed at least 13 civilians, including women and children. Anti-American rallies in Pakistan are entering their second week.

The attack, which destroyed three houses in the remote mountain hamlet of Damadola near the Afghan border, apparently targeted but missed al-Qaida’s leader No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahri.

Aziz condemned the airstrike Sunday, saying such attacks should be cleared with Islamabad before they are carried out.

U.S. and Pakistani officials, he said, have no understanding that allows American military forces to attack alleged terrorists in Pakistan without first consulting the government.

“The understanding is that we will work together,” Aziz told CNN’s “Late Edition.” “We will work in collaboration with each other.”

Angry protests
On Monday, dozens of Islamic extremists and opposition leaders left the Pakistani capital of Islamabad for the northwestern city of Peshawar. From there they plan to travel to the Bajur tribal region, which includes Damadola, to protest the strike.

“We are going to Bajur to condemn the American attack that killed innocent people,” said Pir Sabir Shah, a provincial opposition leader.

On Sunday, thousands of protesters flooded a town near Damadola chanting, “Long live Osama bin Laden!”

About 5,000 demonstrators assembled Sunday on a dry riverbed in a mountain market town near the site of the strike, shouting “Long live Osama bin Laden!” and “Death to America!” They also burned effigies of Bush.

No notice to Pakistan
Aziz said Pakistani officials were given no notice before the attack, which was believed to have been launched by a missile-firing Predator drone from Afghanistan, where some 20,000 U.S. troops are based. Pakistan does not allow U.S. forces to pursue militants across the border or launch strikes without permission.

Aziz said his country “has regretted and condemned the incident and said that such incidents should not reoccur. We need to work together. There is no difference in the objectives of the two countries, so there is no reason why we shouldn’t communicate.”

Pakistani intelligence officials believe that four top al-Qaida operatives may have been killed in the strike, including al-Qaida’s master bomb maker, Midhat Mursi, who has a $5 million U.S. bounty on his head.

But Aziz said “we have not found one body or one shred of evidence that these people (suspected terrorists) were there.”

He also dismissed the notion that Pakistan was not told in advance of the U.S. attack because of the view that some in the Pakistani military and intelligence community might sympathize with al-Qaida.

“If you see the number of lives we have lost chasing these terrorists, the number of people we have picked up all over the country, ... it shows that we have a very effective security apparatus, intelligence apparatus, which has delivered results,” he said.