WASHINGTON, July 19: The White House, after publicly demanding that Pakistan rein in militants linked to Al Qaeda, is now threatening to launch direct attacks into the country’s tribal region to destroy extremist hideouts.

“We never rule out any options, including striking actionable targets,” White House Press Secretary Tony Snow told reporters on Thursday. “There’s no doubt that more aggressive steps need to be taken” against ‘Al Qaeda sanctuaries’ inside Pakistan, he said earlier.

Al Qaeda’s ability to maintain a ‘safe haven in Pakistan’ is “something that’s absolutely going to have to be addressed,” he said, without disclosing what the next steps might be.

Mr Snow, however, indicated that the United States would prefer to have Pakistan act first to oust Al Qaeda terrorists from their hideouts in the tribal areas.

“It is clearly of the utmost importance to go in there (Pakistan) and deal with the problem in the tribal areas,” he said.

Analysts, however, warned that such a move would create more problems than it would solve. “It would lead to major riots throughout Pakistan and the Arab world, and it would lead to certainly a major insurgency against US forces,” Seth Jones, a South Asia specialist at the Rand Institute, told the American Broadcasting Co (ABC News).

For the past seven days, senior US officials have been regularly urging Pakistan to launch a military offensive against the Al Qaeda leaders they say are hiding in the tribal region.

The most direct demand for a military action came from

Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Richard Boucher who told a special briefing on Pakistan earlier this week that “some military action is necessary and will probably have to be taken.”

His demand echoed at regular State Department and White House briefings as well with American officials suggesting that should Pakistan decide to take such an action it will have full US support.

Frances Townsend, the homeland security adviser to President George Bush, went a step further on Tuesday, saying that the president has not ruled out unilateral action against Al Qaeda and has made perfectly clear that he will pursue what she called “actionable targets” in Pakistan or anywhere else.

Until Tuesday, the White House was ruling out the possibility of a direct military strike into Pakistan, saying that “you don’t blithely go into another nation and conduct operations.”

But on Wednesday, Mr Snow changed his position indicating that the US will send troops to Pakistan’s tribal region if it felt the need to do so.

He also stepped up pressure on President Gen Pervez Musharraf to launch a military operation against the militants in the tribal zone, saying that the Pakistani leader needs to take more aggressive steps to end Al Qaeda’s safe haven in those areas.Although, Al Qaeda resurgence in those areas has been known for some time, Mr Snow says this week’s US National Intelligence Estimate provides a moment of focus. The report says that Al Qaeda is using safe havens in the tribal territory to plan new attacks inside the United States.

US officials trace the resurgence to an agreement President Musharraf reached with tribal elders last year to withdraw Pakistani troops if they prevented Al Qaeda and the Taliban from operating in the area.

Mr Snow said that President Bush does not regret taking President Musharraf at his word about that plan, but acknowledged that the plan has not worked. “The one thing we can say for sure is that the plan, as well-intentioned as it was, didn’t work,” he said. “When something does not work, you have to fix it, and that is what is going on now,” he added.

But Washington-based experts on South Asian affairs warned that a major military action, whether by US or Pakistani troops, could further antagonise openly hostile Pashtun tribesmen against Islamabad and could cause widespread ethnic tensions in Pakistan.Such an action, they added, would further weaken President Musharraf who was forced by his commanders – eager to avoid a Pashtun and non-Pashtun divide in the country -- to sign a peace deal with the militants in North Waziristan last year.

“They’re very afraid of sparking a wider civil war among the Pashtuns of Pakistan, because one has to remember that most Pashtuns live in Pakistan, not in Afghanistan, but they identify very closely with the Pashtuns of Afghanistan,” Anatol Lieven, a South Asia expert at the New America Foundation, told a US television channel. “And the Pashtuns also contribute disproportionately to the Pakistani army.”

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