WASHINGTON, March 2: Members of the US Senate have urged the Bush administration to launch military strikes at alleged Al Qaeda targets inside Pakistan, prompting the Pakistani envoy in Washington to warn that such an attitude could bring down the present set-up in Islamabad.

Senior Pentagon officials added fuel to the fire by claiming that their troops have already targeted Taliban and Al Qaeda sites inside Pakistan and that they have an agreement that allows them to do so.

Senator Carl Levin, Democratic chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the panel would press the Defence and State departments to consider taking military action against alleged Al Qaeda camps inside Pakistan if they learn that attacks inside Afghanistan have been planned at these sites.

"It's a critically important point, and I think we've got to insist, on this issue, that we be given a clear answer," Mr Levin said.

Lt-Gen Douglas Lute, chief operations officer for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, however, told the committee US soldiers could target terrorist sites inside Pakistan if there’s an imminent threat.

“We have all the authorities we need to pursue, either with (artillery) fire or on the ground, across the border,” he said.

“If just across the border, inside Pakistan, we have surveillance systems that detect a Taliban party setting up a rocket system which is obviously pointed west, into Afghanistan, we do not have to wait for the rockets to be fired. They have demonstrated hostile intent and we can engage them,” Lt-Gen Lute said.

Retired US Marine Gen. James Jones, former top Nato operational commander in Afghanistan, also told the panel that forces under the US command called Operation Enduring Freedom have a legal right to strike across the border.

"That mission, everybody agrees, could be done," he said.

Lt-Gen Lute, however, clarified that they would have to seek the Pakistan government's permission to go after a munitions factory further inside the Pakistani border.

Pakistan remained the target throughout the debate, with both Democrat and Republican senators claiming that the country is either unwilling or unable to prevent the Taliban and Al Qaeda insurgents from establishing camps inside the tribal zone.

Republican Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama said that if international laws allowed US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, the same laws could be applied to take actions against Al Qaeda and Taliban sanctuaries inside Pakistan.

Democratic Senator Evan Bayh of Indiana said that the Pakistani leaders “need to contemplate which is harder for them -- acting to do something about this, or us acting to do something about this."

Senior US defence officials present at the hearing did little to stop the tirade against Pakistan, a country the administration describes as a close ally in the war against terror.

Instead, they complained that the North Waziristan deal has led to an increase in cross-border attacks, and joined the lawmakers in urging Pakistan to do more to address the problem.

Under Secretary of Defence for Policy Eric Edelman said the agreement led to “an almost immediate and steady increase” in cross-border infiltration and attacks.

"We've expressed, over a period of time, directly to President Musharraf and to others our scepticism and reservations about the agreement,” he said.

Mr Edelman indicated that recent visits to Islamabad by Vice-President Dick Cheney and Defence Secretary Robert Gates were also aimed at persuading Pakistan to do more.

"There's no question that that sanctuary exists, and that it's a major asset for the Taliban,” said Lt-Gen Lute.

The only person who spoke for Pakistan was the committee's former chairman, now senior Republican Party member John Warner.

“I think under the leadership of Musharraf, they're doing the best they can, but the realities are there's fragility in the political system in Pakistan," he explained.

Senator Warner said the situation would be much worse for the United States and its allies if Islamists came to power in Pakistan.

In an interview to a Western news agency, Pakistan’s envoy in Washington, Mahmud Ali Durrani, also warned that such pressure tactics could destabilise Pakistan and may even bring down President Musharraf.

Asked if it might trigger President Musharraf's ouster, he replied: "I don't know. Possibly it could bring him down. It could destabilise the whole country. It could cause mega problems there. That is possible."

"What I'm worried about today more than anything else is this unhinging of the cooperative relationship... In this very critical field of (cooperation on) counter-terrorist operations, there seems to be a problem. We need to fix it," Ambassador Durrani told Reuters.

The hostility against Pakistan is so strong that even the capture of senior Taliban leader Mullah Obaidullah did not help reduce the criticism.

Some media outlets pointed out that Pakistan only captures a major terrorist leader when there’s pressure, which justifies Washington’s current policy of continuing its pressure on Islamabad.


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