- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 2, 2008

DERA ISMAIL KHAN, Pakistan (AP) — Gen. David Petraeus, newly tasked with the responsibility for America’s two wars, landed in Pakistan on Sunday, hours after a suicide car bomb killed eight Pakistani troops and underlined the Muslim nation’s critical role in the war on terror.

Gen. Petraeus, who took over as head of U.S. Central Command on Friday after 20 months as the top U.S. commander in Baghdad, was accompanied by U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher, the U.S. Embassy confirmed.

Acting embassy spokesman Wes Robertson declined to provide specifics of the Americans’ stay but said they would meet with government and military officials.

Gen. Petraeus’ visit, coming so soon after he took his new position, signals how important the United States considers Pakistan to the success of the anti-terror fight, particularly in Afghanistan, where an insurgency is raging seven years after the United States ousted the Taliban regime from power.

The United States has pressured Pakistan to crack down on militants that use its soil as a base from which to plan attacks on American and NATO forces in Afghanistan.

But the visit also comes amid tension over alleged U.S. missile strikes on militant targets in Pakistan, one of which occurred last week in the same region the bomber struck Sunday.

The attacker rammed his vehicle at a checkpoint near the main gate of the Zalai Fort as Frontier Corps paramilitary troops gathered nearby, said Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, the Pakistan army’s top spokesman. Eight people died and four were wounded, he said.

The fort is 12 miles (20 kilometers) outside Wana, the main town in South Waziristan, a tribal region considered a hub for al Qaeda and Taliban fighters involved in attacks on U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan.

South Waziristan was the site of one of two suspected U.S. missile attacks on Friday that killed 29 people, including several suspected foreign militants, intelligence officials said.

It was not immediately clear whether Sunday’s suicide attack was linked to the missile strikes.

But the strikes have strained Pakistan’s alliance with the United States and spurred militant calls for revenge. Pakistani troops have been frequent targets of escalating attacks by militants who want the country to end its support of the United States.

The Pakistani troops were washing their vehicles Sunday when the suicide attacker came, two intelligence officials said. They described the explosion as “large” and said it destroyed the checkpoint and damaged the front wall of the fort.

The intelligence officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to media. It was not possible to immediately verify the details. South Waziristan is a dangerous, remote area where travel by foreigners and many journalists is restricted.

Under American pressure, Pakistan has deployed security forces throughout its northwest in an attempt to tamp down growing militancy.

Washington is suspected in at least 17 missile strikes in northwestern Pakistan since August, a potential indication that the United States is not satisfied with Pakistan’s efforts.

Pakistan routinely protests the missile attacks as violations of its sovereignty, but the strikes have continued nonetheless.

In a statement Sunday, Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani condemned the suicide attack in South Waziristan, saying he “deplored the loss of innocent lives.”

Associated Press writers Zarar Khan and Nahal Toosi in Islamabad contributed to this report.

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