- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Pakistan is in a downward security spiral as militants take advantage of a new civilian government and exploit growing anti-American sentiment in the country, U.S. intelligence officials and regional specialists said Monday.

Two days after a truck bomb blew up outside the Islamabad Marriott, killing more than 50 people including at least two Americans, British Airways suspended flights to the Pakistani capital, citing security concerns.

In the northeast city of Peshawar, near the tribal territories that have become safe havens for the Taliban and al Qaeda, gunmen kidnapped Afghanistan’s ambassador-designate to Pakistan and killed his driver.

Saturday’s bombing appeared aimed in part at decapitating the Pakistani government.

Pakistan’s new president, Asif Ali Zardari, and Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani were to have been having dinner at the Marriott that evening, but changed the venue two days in advance to the prime minister’s home, a Pakistani official said. The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, would not say whether the decision was based on security concerns.

“The national assembly speaker had arranged a dinner for the entire leadership for the president, prime minister and armed services chiefs at the Marriott that day,” Pakistani Interior Minister Rehman Malik told reporters in Islamabad. The president and prime minister ordered the dinner moved to the prime minister’s residence and “thus the whole leadership was saved,” Mr. Malik said.

Jeffrey Addicott, director for the Center for Terrorism Law at St. Mary´s University in San Antonio, said “Pakistan is in the midst of a serious security crisis” and the government is faced with a dilemma in which both inaction and a military crackdown pose serious risks.

“The Pakistani government’s inaction has given al Qaeda power, but if the government reacts too forcefully, they could also get a backlash from the people,” he said. “They are in some ways caught between the two unsure choices, but if they do nothing, as they have been doing, al Qaeda will only gain more strength. It is an unfortunate crisis that is leaving both our nations in danger and allowing al Qaeda to flourish.”

CIA Director Michael V. Hayden said in a speech last week in Los Angeles that al Qaeda and its affiliates pose the most serious threat to the security of the United States and present more risk of using weapons of mass destruction than Iran or North Korea.

The security situation in Pakistan has been deteriorating since the assassination last year of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Pervez Musharraf has been forced from the military leadership and the presidency, and a new civilian president and prime minister have taken office in recent months.

“Pakistan is facing a concerted challenge from al Qaeda and its allies to break the will of the Zardari government and force it to accept a jihadist state within the state,” said Bruce Riedel, a former senior official on the White House National Security Council and author of an upcoming book, “The Search for al Qaeda.”

The Bush administration, frustrated by a lack of Pakistani cooperation and worried about security leaks in the Pakistani military and intelligence service, has escalated attacks on al Qaeda targets in Pakistan’s tribal areas, provoking Pakistani protests.

Worried about further inflaming public opinion, the Pakistani government has declined a U.S. offer to assist in the investigation of the Marriott bombing.

“The Ministry of Interior has told us that it does not at the moment need any outside assistance for the investigation,” State Department spokesman Robert Wood said Monday. “However, we stand ready to assist the Pakistanis with this investigation if they … ask us for assistance.”

A senior Pakistani official said his country would share information about the bombing with the United States, “but we expect the same in return when it comes to operations or knowledge about al Qaeda in our country.”

Two U.S. Defense Department employees died and a third American, a State Department contractor, is unaccounted for in the bombing, Mr. Wood said. Also among the dead was the Czech ambassador to Pakistan. Three U.S. Embassy employees and a contractor were among more than 250 injured.

The bomber attacked at dusk, when the hotel was filled with hundreds of people breaking the Ramadan fast. Closed-circuit surveillance footage showed a truck trying to breach the second gates before catching fire and exploding.

Mr. Addicott said the new civilian government in Pakistan “is being tested in regards to how they intend to deal with the rising tide of militant Islam.”

The solution, he said, requires both military action in the tribal areas and efforts to close radical Islamic schools, which he likened to “Hitler youth camps” that indoctrinate students to hate.

“At a minimum,” he said, “the new government must register those radical madrassas and take steps to halt the spread of the murderous ideology that makes a mockery of freedom of religion.”

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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