WASHINGTON — A U.S. missile strike that's believed to have killed a senior al Qaida operative in Pakistan's tribal area roiled talks Monday between President Bush and Pakistani Prime Minister Sayed Yousaf Gilani, who reproached Bush for acting unilaterally and failing to share intelligence with Pakistani authorities.
A U.S. official defended the missile strike as a message that Washington will no longer abide Pakistan's failure to deny al Qaida and the Taliban refuge at a time of surging cross-border attacks on U.S., NATO and Afghan forces in Afghanistan.
"If they (Pakistan) aren't doing anything, then we are," said the official, who requested anonymity because he wasn't authorized to discuss the issue publicly.
Pakistan, however, considers U.S. strikes on its territory violations of its sovereignty and interference in its internal affairs.
Gilani, appearing on CNN, said he told Bush, "This action should not be taken by the United States" and, "It's our job because we are fighting the war for ourselves."
He also called for "more cooperation on the intelligence side" and said that any "credible and actionable information" should be given to Pakistan."
The Pakistani military complained bitterly.
"Our sovereignty and territorial integrity must be respected. Any violation in this regard could be detrimental to bilateral relations," Gen. Tariq Majid, the second highest Pakistani officer, warned in a statement after a meeting Monday with U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Martin Dempsey, the acting head of the U.S. Central Command.
Two U.S. officials said that a senior al Qaida explosives expert, Midhat Mursi al Sayid Umar, was believed to be among those who were killed when missiles fired by an unmanned U.S. aircraft hit a religious school in Azem Warsak, a village in Pakistan's South Waziristan tribal agency.
The U.S. officials requested anonymity because the operation was classified.
A total of six people were killed in the operation, according to state-run Pakistan television.
Before he clashed with Bush, Gilani lost a major confrontation with his own military over the weekend. U.S. analysts said the Pakistani leader is nearly powerless to do anything, partly because the coalition he heads remains in disarray, divided over the future of President Pervez Musharraf, the former army chief who seized power in a 1998 coup, and the reinstatement of scores of judges whom Musharraf ousted last year.
Moreover, the Pakistani military has made it clear that it won't bow to the authority of the Gilani's coalition, which was formed after parliamentary polls in February.
Gilani's government on Sunday abruptly reversed a decision announced a day earlier to place the powerful military intelligence agency, the Inter Services Intelligence Directorate, or ISI, under the control of the civilian Interior Ministry.
The decision "came as a surprise, and we informed the government of our reservations," said Pakistani Army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas.
Pakistani news reports said that the government's about-face came after Gilani got emergency calls from Musharraf and the Army chief of staff, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani.
"They (the government) have made fools of themselves," said Talat Masoud, a retired Pakistani general and defense analyst. "It shows the weakness of the civilians and how much the military remains in charge."
The White House, the Pentagon and the CIA refused to comment on the missile attack, the latest in a series of U.S. missile and air strikes on purported terrorist sites in the tribal area that also have killed civilians and Pakistani security personnel.
Mursi, an Egyptian with a $5 million U.S. bounty on his head, trained al Qaida and Taliban fighters in bomb-making. He ran a camp in eastern Afghanistan before the 2001 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in which he oversaw the manufacture of crude chemical weapons, according to the National Counter-Terrorism Center.
His best-known pupils reportedly include Zacharias Moussaoui, who pleaded guilty in 2005 to plotting to hijack planes and kill Americans, and Richard Reid, a Briton who tried to blow up a trans-Atlantic flight by igniting explosives hidden in his sneakers.
U.S. military and intelligence officials blame an upsurge in attacks on U.S.-led NATO and Afghan security forces in Afghanistan on truces the Pakistani military forged with militant groups, freeing Islamic fighters to join the Taliban insurgency.
Some U.S. officials believe the groups receive support from sympathetic Pakistani officers, a charge Islamabad denies, but an issue that Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice were expected to discuss in separate meetings with Gilani.
Appearing briefly on the south lawn of the White House, Bush praised Gilani for his "very strong commitment" to fighting terrorism preventing infiltration into Afghanistan.
"We talked about the common threat we face:�extremists who are very dangerous people.�We talked about the need for us to make sure that the Afghan border is secure as best as possible," said Bush. "The U.S., I repeat, respects the sovereignty of this democracy."
Gilani reiterated his government's resolve to "fight against those extremists and terrorists who are destroying and making the world not safe."
(Shah, a McClatchy special correspondent, reported from Islamabad, Pakistan.)
McClatchy Newspapers 2008