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THE WORLD

Gates lauds Pakistan push in tribal areas

The country's military campaign helps U.S. forces across the border in Afghanistan, the Defense chief says.

September 24, 2008|Julian E. Barnes and Henry Chu | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — A recent push by Pakistan's army into the country's lawless tribal region has helped American troops fighting in the nearby border areas of Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told U.S. senators Tuesday.

Gates praised the effort in deflecting demands by lawmakers that Pakistan's new civilian government permit more forceful U.S. action against militants who battle American forces in Afghanistan and then flee to Pakistan.

"Regardless of the effectiveness of their operations, their mere presence and willingness to fight has reduced some of the pressure on the Afghan side of the border as the Taliban and others keep more troops at home to watch their backs, as it were," Gates said at a Senate hearing.

Pakistani army officials said Tuesday that the military push had resulted in the deaths of 50 militants and loss of one soldier over two days of clashes in the restive tribal belt. The government has touted its crackdown as proof of its commitment to rooting out Islamic extremism.

Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, expressed frustration with Pakistan's failure to eliminate militants' safe havens. He expressed dismay over criticism by Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari of U.S. cross-border raids and suggested that the government in Islamabad was not doing enough.

But Gates responded that although the U.S. would continue to do what was necessary to "protect our troops," he understands that Pakistan is unlikely to voice support for U.S. action.

Instead, Gates said, U.S. officials emphasize the threat of extremism to both U.S. and Pakistani interests, pointing to Saturday's bombing of the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad, the capital.

"I think it's essential for Pakistan to be a willing partner in any strategy we have to deal with the threat coming out of the western part of Pakistan and in Afghanistan," he said.

Meanwhile, U.S. officials reacted skeptically to reports out of Pakistan that an American aerial drone was shot down over the tribal region of South Waziristan. Officials said they were unaware of any aircraft missing.

President Bush met with Zardari on Tuesday in New York at the start of the annual United Nations General Assembly meeting, taking note before their private conference of Zardari's "very strong words" recently about "Pakistan's sovereign right and sovereign duty" to protect itself, an apparent reference to Western military incursions from Afghanistan.

"The United States wants to help," Bush said.

The latest offensive by Pakistani military forces included helicopter gunships and artillery fire in the Dara Adam Khel area, south of the city of Peshawar. In a statement, the military said that the campaign allowed government forces to regain control of a tunnel leading south out of Peshawar, a key passage damaged by a truck bomb a few months ago.

The claims by the Pakistani army that a large number of militants had been killed could not be independently verified.

Army officials also said that 14 militants were killed during a military operation in the Bajaur tribal region Monday night, an area that has seen heavy fighting and casualties since August.

Some analysts said that anger over the Bajaur campaign may have been the impetus for Saturday's Marriott bombing, which killed more than 50 people. But so far, an investigation has produced little evidence pointing to any particular militant group being responsible.

On Tuesday, Pakistani Prime Minister Yusaf Raza Gillani convened an emergency meeting to address the country's security situation and discuss ways to better protect Islamabad. No specific measures were announced; a committee composed of Pakistan's intelligence chiefs and other law enforcement officials is due to meet again this week.

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julian.barnes@latimes.com

henry.chu@latimes.com

Barnes reported from Washington and Chu from Islamabad. Special correspondent Zulfiqar Ali in Peshawar and Times staff writer James Gerstenzang in Washington contributed to this report.

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