- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 14, 2008

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan | Pakistan says it will pursue diplomacy, not conflict, to persuade Washington to halt raids into its territory in search of Islamic militants, calling the U.S. strategy counterproductive.

The comments made Friday night and Saturday by two top officials seemed to indicate that the government, trying to avoid an outright confrontation with its ally and financial supporter, has decided to ease public rhetoric in hopes that quiet talks will convince Washington that the attacks are only inflaming sentiment against both countries’ leadership.

The furor over a recent rash of attacks in Pakistan’s tribal areas near the Afghan border escalated after reports emerged Thursday that President Bush secretly approved more aggressive cross-border operations in July as part of a strategy to fight the resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan.

The main opposition party suggested Friday that Pakistan should consider dropping out of the war on terror if the policy continues.

Since Aug. 13, there have been at least seven reported missile strikes as well as a raid by helicopter-borne U.S. commandos that Pakistani officials say killed 15 civilians in tribally governed territory where the Islamabad government has little control. The border region is considered a likely hiding place for al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri.

A group of tribal elders representing about a half-million people in the North Waziristan area, where most of the missile attacks have occurred, threatened Saturday to join forces with Taliban militants in Afghanistan.

“If America doesn’t stop attacks in tribal areas, we will prepare a lashkar [army] to attack U.S. forces in Afghanistan,” chief tribal elder Malik Nasrullah told a news conference in Miran Shah, the area’s largest city. “We will also seek support from the tribal elders in Afghanistan to fight jointly against America.”

Protests against the U.S. incursions, each drawing about 50 people, were held Saturday in Karachi, Lahore and Quetta by the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf party of cricket star-turned-politician Imran Khan. Some carried placards reading “Bush worst example of human rights violations.”

The government and military have issued stiff protests to Washington, although the criticism appeared to be mostly rhetoric aimed at soothing domestic anger since Pakistan really has few options to influence U.S. policy short of opening fire on allied forces or cutting off relations.

Defense Minister Ahmad Mukhtar repeated Pakistan’s contention that it is doing all it can to fight militancy and is suffering as a result, with more than 1,000 security forces killed since the country allied itself with Washington in its war on terror after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States.

Pakistan’s military said Saturday it killed at least 72 militants and lost eight forces in three days of fighting near the Afghan border, where Taliban and al Qaeda militants are thought to be hiding.

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