WASHINGTON — President Bush, struggling with turbulence in the important U.S.-Pakistani relationship, eased back Friday from his vow to order U.S. troops to invade Pakistan, if necessary, to track down Osama bin Laden.
Bush, appearing at the White House with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, backed away from a pledge he made this week and signaled that he would prefer to keep ambiguous how he would handle a situation of such diplomatic sensitivity.
American and Pakistani officials are "on the hunt together" for the leader of the Al Qaeda terrorist network, Bush told reporters. "And we'll just let the tactics speak for themselves after it happens."
His comments followed a rare public collision between Bush and Musharraf on Wednesday, when Bush, in response to a question from CNN, insisted that he would "absolutely" order military action inside Pakistan if there were intelligence showing that Bin Laden or other terrorist leaders were hiding there.
The comment seemed likely to draw a sharp reaction from Pakistanis, who are highly sensitive about any suggestion of U.S. infringement on Pakistani sovereignty. Musharraf immediately contended that only Pakistani troops could handle such a situation.
The exchange came at an especially difficult time for the relationship. U.S., Afghan and NATO officials are increasingly concerned that Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters are using Pakistani border areas for sanctuary. Meanwhile, Musharraf is trying to cope with domestic dissatisfaction over the extent of his cooperation with the controversial U.S.-declared war on terrorism.
Bush on Friday tried to smooth relations in his meeting with Musharraf, and next week will receive both Musharraf and Afghan President Hamid Karzai at the White House in an effort to end the public feuding between the leaders of the two Asian nations. Each has accused the other of doing too little to fight militants; Karzai suggested at the United Nations this week that the allied forces needed to strike terrorism at its roots by going inside Pakistan.
Bush also struggled to deal with a second provocative subject, the allegation by Musharraf that a senior State Department official had warned in 2001 that the United States would bomb Pakistan "back to the Stone Age" if it did not cooperate in the impending U.S. attack on Afghanistan.
Musharraf said in an interview taped for broadcast Sunday on CBS' "60 Minutes" that then-Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage made the comment to the head of Pakistani intelligence. Excerpts were made public Thursday.
"The first I heard of it was when I read it in the newspaper today," Bush said during his joint appearance with Musharraf on Friday. "I guess I was taken aback by the harshness of the words."
Musharraf, for his part, declined at the White House news conference to elaborate on his comments, saying he was "honor-bound" to do so under a contract with the publisher Simon & Schuster for a memoir to be released Monday.
Musharraf's demurral marked the first time in memory that a head of state had declined to give an answer to a national security question that could have interfered with sales of his book, analysts said.
Meanwhile, Armitage denied that he had made the remark. In an interview with CNN that was broadcast Friday, Armitage said he had no authority to make such a threat. But he said he had a stern conversation with the Pakistani intelligence chief, warning him that Pakistan would be "with us or against us."
Armitage's office said he was unavailable for further comment.
U.S. confidence in the Pakistani government has recently been shaken by Musharraf's decision to end his army's attempt to root out Taliban from the border territory of North Waziristan and to reach a peace deal with tribal leaders there. Many analysts have said the deal, which calls for release of accused militants held in prison, would increase the risks and burdens for U.S. and North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces struggling in an uphill fight in Afghanistan.
But Bush sought again and again to offer reassurance that Musharraf, a general who took power in a coup, is a loyal ally and an indispensable part of the fight against Islamic extremism.
"When the president looks me in the eye and says the tribal deal is intended to reject the Talibanization of the people ... I believe him.... This is a person with whom I have had a close working relationship for 5 1/2 years," Bush said. He noted that Musharraf had survived assassination attempts, which he suggested was a sign of commitment to the fight against radicals.
Musharraf, whose security services are skeptical about U.S.-Pakistani cooperation, tried, in turn, to vouch for Bush.
"I have total confidence in him, that he desires well for Pakistan and for our region," Musharraf said.
The joint appearance shed some light on Bush's intentions on Arab-Israeli issues.
European and Islamic leaders have recently increased pressure on Bush to restart negotiations in the aftermath of the summer's deadly fighting in Lebanon. Musharraf praised Bush for his efforts to resolve the Palestinian dispute that he said was the "core issue" in terrorism.
And Bush said at the United Nations this week that he would be ordering a renewed effort in the region.
Yet Bush, circumscribing American responsibility, said Friday that in the Arab-Israeli issue, as in the dispute between India and Pakistan over Kashmir, the lead would be played by the participants, not by Washington. That approach is the strong preference of Israeli officials.
"Leadership is going to be required between Israel and Palestine. We, of course, can help and will help," Bush said. "But it's important for you to understand that we cannot impose peace."