Arrests in Pakistan may include neighbor who lived behind bin Laden

McClatchy NewspapersJune 15, 2011 

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — The occupant of a large house about 100 yards behind the compound where U.S. special forces shot and killed Osama bin Laden may be among the people Pakistan has arrested for helping the CIA track the terrorist leader down.

U.S. and Pakistani officials acknowledged Wednesday that Pakistan has arrested several of its own citizens for helping the CIA spy on the house where bin Laden lived.

Officials declined to release the names of those being held. But the occupant of the house behind bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, matches the description of one of the detainees, who one Pakistani official said had been a doctor in the army's medical corps.

The house's watchtowers would have provided a clear view of the walled compound where bin Laden is suspected of having lived for perhaps as long as five years. The nameplate outside the home identified the resident as Major Amir Aziz. Neighbors said he was a doctor.

The Pakistan military, in a statement Wednesday, said no serving officer had been arrested; the name plate gave no indication of whether Major Aziz was serving or retired.

The arrests of people who might have helped track bin Laden highlight the deep distrust that continues to plague relations between Washington and Islamabad, two anti-terror allies. Pakistan fears that the CIA has set up its own independent spy network in the country, a tactic apparently confirmed by the operation to eliminate bin Laden.

Washington is pressing Islamabad to urgently mount joint operations to strike at the remainder of al Qaida in Pakistan, as the organization reels from the loss of its leader and the disclosure of a huge amount of data on its workings, gathered from the bin Laden compound.

But the Pakistani military, which controls security policy in a country with a weak civilian government, is still angry at the perceived humiliation it suffered as a result of the unilateral May 2 U.S. special forces raid into the country, which was undetected by Pakistan's air defense network, even though Abbottabad is a military town and home to Pakistan's prestigious national military academy.

Those arrested in Abbottabad had monitored the bin Laden house, noting number plates of vehicles coming and going, and "patterns of life" at the compound, according to U.S. and Pakistani officials. They include the owner of a safe house rented to CIA operatives to spy on the bin Laden home.

A Pakistani official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said that the detentions included a former army medical corps doctor. The army medical corps is headquartered in Abbottabad.

The official didn't provide a name for the doctor, but last month, a McClatchy reporter located a house around 100 yards behind the bin Laden compound with two watchtowers, an usual feature. With no buildings between the house and the bin Laden compound, the watchtowers would have provided a commanding view of the al Qaida leader's hiding place.

The occupants refused to come to the gate of the house, but the nameplate identified the occupant as Major Aziz, and neighbors said at the time that he was a doctor. The following day, when the McClatchy reporter returned, the nameplate had been removed.

According to the Pakistani official, those arrested may not have been aware that they were working for the CIA. The official said they were hired by Pakistanis to snoop on unnamed terrorists.

"Wouldn't any country detain people for working for a foreign spy service?" said the Pakistani official.

Pakistan has agreed, in principle, to mount joint intelligence operations with the CIA against al Qaida and other extremist targets in the country. But the visas for CIA personnel required for such an effort have yet to be issued. In the meantime, Pakistan hasn't bowed to U.S. demands for raids against the targets, according to U.S. and Pakistani officials.

Al Qaida's deputy leader Ayman al Zawahiri, who's widely expected to be named bin Laden's successor, is believed to be in Pakistan, along with many other top commanders of the group.

Al Qaida and its Pakistani affiliates have targeted the Pakistani government and civilians since 2007. U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, have stated that there is "no evidence" that any high-ranking Pakistani officials knew of bin Laden's presence in Abbottabad, though suspicions linger.

The leadership of the Taliban and the allied Haqqani network, also believed to be in Pakistan, are also on the U.S. target list.

While there is bitter rhetoric from both sides, significant cooperation does quietly continue. U.S. "drone" aircraft, according to Pakistani and U.S. officials, are still taking off from a remote Pakistani air base, Shamsi, in the desert of Baluchistan province, to target suspected militants in Pakistan's tribal area — despite continued official Pakistani protests about the drones breaching sovereignty.

There are demands in Congress that the U.S. now put benchmarks on its dealings with Pakistan.

Appearing before a Senate hearing Wednesday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates backed the relationship with Islamabad. Senator Patrick Leahy questioned continued support to Pakistan, when it "lies" to the U.S.

"I would say based on 27 years in CIA and four and a half years in this job — most governments lie to each other," Gates replied. "That's the way business gets done."

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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